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Students at McGill University's campus in Montreal in 2017. The Quebec government has introduced a bill that it says is aimed at protecting academic freedom.Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

The Quebec government says university professors should be able to use any words they deem necessary in the classroom, provided those words are used in an academic context and meet standards of ethics and science.

In response to controversial debates over the limits of acceptable speech on university campuses, the government has introduced a bill that it says is aimed at protecting academic freedom.

Higher Education Minister Danielle McCann announced the initiative Wednesday. It will require universities to develop an academic-freedom policy and appoint a person responsible for its oversight. In addition, councils must be appointed to hear complaints and hand out penalties when these policies are violated.

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“Censorship has no place in our classrooms. We must protect the teaching staff from censorship,” Ms. McCann said at a press conference, at which she also made reference to what she described as troubling incidents over free expression on university campuses.

The proposed law stems from the work of a commission led by former Parti Québécois minister and university administrator Alexandre Cloutier, who delivered a report last year that recommended the government legislate protections for academic freedom. As part of its report, the Cloutier commission conducted a poll that found that 60 per cent of Quebec university instructors said they self-censored and avoided using certain words.

The commission was launched partly in response to a 2020 controversy over the treatment of a lecturer at the University of Ottawa who used the N-word in class while explaining how some social groups had reappropriated words considered slurs.

A student complained, the lecturer was briefly suspended and the issue of acceptable speech in the university context became a media cause célèbre. Quebec Premier François Legault criticized the university for its handling of the case.

“Classrooms are not safe spaces; they are spaces for debate,” Ms. McCann said.

A provision in the legislation states that professors cannot be required to provide trigger warnings about sensitive material in their courses.

The legislation announced Wednesday also grants Ms. McCann the power to dictate aspects of the policy to individual schools, which could be seen as paradoxically undermining the autonomy of universities.

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Quebec's Higher Education Minister Danielle McCann tables the academic freedom initiative at the legislature in Quebec City on April 6.Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press

Daniel Béland, director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, said the proposed law may not be passed before a Quebec election expected this fall, but it provides the Premier with a campaign issue that has broad public support. There’s a consensus in favour of protecting academic freedom, but divisions arise over how best to do so and whether a law is really necessary, he said.

“It’s politically expedient for the government because it’s been such a big issue in the media in Quebec. But many people within universities are quite critical,” Prof. Béland said. “[The bill] is basically saying that the minister can force universities to tweak their academic freedom policies, which is quite ironic.”

Issues of academic freedom and free expression have become popular on the right of the political spectrum in recent years. Conservative governments in Ontario and Alberta both pushed universities in their provinces to adopt free-speech policies in line with one developed at the University of Chicago in response to what the government framed as threats to free expression on campus.

James Turk, director of the Centre for Free Expression at Ryerson University, said academic freedom is entrenched at all Canadian universities, so a provincial law of this kind would be a departure from established tradition.

It would create new structures within universities to deal with something normally governed by collective agreements, which all have academic-freedom clauses, Prof. Turk said. The advantage of pursuing disputes through a collective agreement, he said, is that adjudication is conducted by an independent arbitrator.

The Quebec proposal would place review and sanction powers with a council established by the university. It’s not clear who would appoint the council and who would sit on it. It could become an extension of the power of university administrators, who are often at the heart of academic-freedom disputes, Prof. Turk said.

Jonathan Desroches, president of the Quebec Student Union, which represents more than 90,000 students in the province, said the law is not necessary. Its principal impact will be to undermine university autonomy, he said.

“It’s not something we needed to address with a law. It’s more a matter of having respectful conversations, which is always the idea in a university,” Mr. Desroches said. “Classrooms should be respectful and anything should be able to be said in that spirit of respect.”

With a report from The Canadian Press

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