Black Law Students’ Association Public Statement

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Black Law Students’ Association Public Statement

We, the Black Law Students’ Association of the University of Ottawa (BLSA Ottawa), are a network of students devoted to excellence and substantive equality. We belong to a national student federation, the Black Law Students’ Association of Canada (BLSAC), committed to advancing the academic and professional interests of black law students across the country. We are charged with the responsibility of actively creating an environment in which black law students, our colleagues, friends and mentors are supported when subject to oppressive and racially discriminatory conduct.

Consequently, we take this opportunity to address publicly the statements made by Denis Rancourt, a former physics professor at the University of Ottawa, who, on his blog U of O Watch, wrote that Faculty of Law Professor Joanne St. Lewis acted like a “house negro” in response to her assessment of a report done by the Student Appeal Centre (SAC) in 2008 at the University of Ottawa.

Historically, “house negro” was a term used to denote a black slave in the United States and Canada who worked within the home of a slave master and who severed ties with his or her cultural-racial heritage. It was a term used to describe a black person who supported the continued marginalization and enslavement of black people. In the opening lines of his blog post Rancourt writes, “February is Black History Month in Canada and the US. U of O Watch believes that it is the right time not only to honour Black Americans who fought for social justice against masters but also to out Black Americans who were and continue to be house negroes to masters.” Not only does U of O Watch not acknowledge African Canadian identities, it claims to “out” black Americans who are still “house negro” to masters. Black Canadians have a distinctive and complex history that is different to that of the United States. We are not “house negroes” because we actively fight for and continue to rigorously advocate for equality and the advancement of black people.

The SAC Report entitled, “Mistreatment of Students, Unfair Practices and Systemic Racism at the University of Ottawa” documented a finding of systemic racism using undefined data and an unrepresentative sampling of the population. In her assessment Professor St. Lewis stated, “the fact that the report did not succeed in its methodological attempts does not mean that there is not a problem that should be addressed.” She further stated, “when the pool of subjects to be examined is so small it is critically important that the data is evaluated cautiously and evaluated carefully…this does not appear to have been the case here.”

Professor St. Lewis has never stated that there is no racism at the University of Ottawa. The very first recommendation in her evaluation report calls for an independent assessment to determine whether systemic racism plays any part in the Academic Fraud process. As we understand it, her point is that the SAC Report is methodologically flawed and misses the opportunity to meaningfully address structural racial discrimination at the university. As Professor St. Lewis asked in her first recommendation, we support the call for an independent assessment of the academic fraud process to “determine whether systematic racism plays any part in the Academic Fraud process” and an account of what actions SAC has taken since its report was released.

We, BLSA Ottawa, know racism to be a multi-dimensional and nuanced subject area. We firmly plant our roots in anti-racist politics. However, this does not mean that a report that is wanting of substance is to be endorsed because we are people of colour. Students would benefit from an in-depth investigative process to lend credibility to any claim of systemic racism. To declare that the only black female English Common Law professor acted like a “house negro” for merely pointing this out is reprehensible; and we condemn it in the strongest possible terms. Professor St. Lewis has been the strongest and longest-standing mentor available to black law students from Vancouver to Halifax, including here in the National Capital (Region) for over 20 years.

The United Nations declared 2011 to be the International Year for People of African Descent. We, BLSA Ottawa, stand in full solidarity with Professor Joanne St. Lewis, and call on all law students, lawyers and community members to stand united with the black community in our collective effort to oppose all instances of racial discrimination.
Designed by Rachel Gold.