OTTAWA -- Quebec Premier Francois Legault says the University of Ottawa should have defended a professor who used a derogatory word for Black people in class.

A student complained that part-time professor Verushka Lieutenant-Duval used the n-word late last month in class to explain how some communities had reclaimed terms over time.

The incident has sparked vocal disagreement between some students and faculty in a case that pits academic freedom and open dialogue against the rights and sensitivities of those in the classroom.

Several other University of Ottawa professors signed a letter publically denouncing the school's decision to suspend Lieutenant-Duval. 

Lieutenant-Duval apologized upon receiving the complaint and invited her students at the university, attended by many francophones, to discuss the issue in their next class. Another 600 professors added their names to a letter published in Le Devoir which accused the university of not doing anything to address systemic racism and of setting a dangerous precedent by punishing a professor who did not use the word in a malicious way. 

Legault says the professor wanted to raise an important subject, not insult anybody.

"She just wanted to raise an important subject," he said. "It's unacceptable to see the Ottawa University didn't defend the professor and some people were quite aggressive on social media."

He says in places of higher learning it is important that all subjects be open for debate.

Legault was not the only Quebec politician to rush to the professor's defence. Liberal leader Dominique Anglade, the first Black leader of a major Quebec party, used the French version of the word while giving her take.

"We have to be able to be in an environment where people can talk about a word, explain what it means, the history behind it. And I think we need to protect this in our institutions. At the same time, I do understand the reaction," she said. 

- This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 20, 2020.