Henri-Bourassa student systemic racism

Hiba Jabouirik

A Montreal high school teacher’s unintended lesson on systemic racism

If a Muslim teacher instead of a Québécois teacher was proselytizing in their classroom, how quickly would action have been taken?

Like many of you, I was horrified when I first watched the video of Montreal North high school teacher Vincent Ouellette repeatedly (almost gleefully) hurling the n-word in his virtual class.

We would soon find out that the incident was just the tip of the iceberg. Since the video went viral, several other students and former students of this longtime Henri-Bourassa history teacher have come forward with numerous allegations of racism, Islamophobia, bigotry and anti-immigrant sentiments.

In order to better understand the extent of what former students were subjected to by Ouellette over the years, I spoke with three of them.

Becoming ashamed of who you are

Gio Olmos graduated in 2012. Because they are Latinx, they believe they were mostly under the teacher’s radar, but they personally witnessed the prejudice and bias their Black and Muslim peers were subjected to by Ouellette.

“We were only 15 at the time, and at some point you internalize and absorb this kind of speech and start believing that it’s just part of being educated in Quebec when you’re not a ‘Québécois de souche,’” says Olmos. “It became white noise in class.”

Olmos went to the teacher and spoke to the administration, but their concerns fell on deaf ears. “Over time, you develop feelings of shame for being poor, for not being ‘Québécois de souche,’ for not having French as your maternal language. He made us question the validity of our feelings.”

Ouellette made them believe that being exposed to this harmful speech was part of the terms of free expression, and he often made a point of bragging that his father was a judge and his brother a lawyer.

Now, as a 25-year-old adult, Olmos is shocked that nothing was ever done. “This isn’t about one specific teacher, but about making education safer for BIPOC students across the province,” they say. “This case is a concrete example of systemic racism and it’s how it needs to be dealt with. If you look at the six demands our group issued, only two deal with this individual case. There’s a need for more awareness. The white students who weren’t his target didn’t benefit from having him as a teacher either, since he exposed them to radical ideas and outright racism.”

Regarding the current debate taking place in Quebec about the n-word, Olmos feels it’s not a smart use of resources to turn this into a debate about freedom of speech. “By denying systemic racism exists in this province, we are ignoring mechanisms in place that continue to marginalize minorities.

“Yes, it’s important to question everything and discuss everything in school, but your job as a teacher is to fundamentally engage with students in a safe and comfortable space. This teacher never did that. He was engaged in full-on indoctrination of his personal beliefs.”

Olmos also points to the power dynamics. “His class was a required course to graduate, so students had no choice but to take it.”

Muslim students forced to apologize for terrorism

Hanae Tamim is also a former student. She took Ouellette’s History and Civics class in Secondary 4 and 5 and remembers well the impression he made on her.

“He would use his platform, not to teach, but to offer his opinion, which was clearly biased when it came to Muslims, immigration and religion,” she says.

“A teacher is supposed to teach facts, but it was clear he hated religion and thought all people who practised a religion were idiots. I’m Muslim but I don’t wear the hijab, but he treated classmates who did with contempt. He was awful to them! He would tell them they were brainwashed and submissive to their fathers and brothers as Muslim women.”

After the Charlie Hebdo events in France, Tamim says Ouellette came into class and demanded that all Muslim students in class apologize for what had taken place. “He made no distinction between Islam extremists and the Muslim religion. To him, it was all the same. He berated us as ‘terrorists.’”

Tamim was only 15 at the time, but she mustered up the courage to confront him outside of class. Ouellette dismissed her concerns and told her that she didn’t understand what he was saying. A group of 15 to 20 students went to the principal of the school’s international program to complain. The principal told them they would “look into it,” but nothing was ever done.

“I didn’t even realize how impacted I was by that class, but I started suffering from anxiety and panic attacks,” Tamim says. “When I went to CEGEP I would get rashes on my entire body the minute I would step on campus. He was a big part of me feeling unsafe at school. I had to go to therapy to get better. Ironically, given the context, it was my faith that kept me grounded and helped me get through this.”

“I was an easy target”

Hiba Jabouirik graduated in 2016, and as a Muslim woman who wears the hijab, she remembers well how she was treated in Ouellette’s class. 

“Seniors warned me about him before I even had him as my teacher,” she tells me. “I was an easy target because I wear the hijab.”

Jabouirik confronted Ouellette and many parents spoke with school administrators, but she says there was no real system in place to file a complaint and their concerns were largely ignored. The lack of any real follow-up would largely explain how Ouellette has been teaching at Henri-Bourassa for at least a decade and has been a teacher for the past 25 years.

It took a current student to secretly film him and post the video on social media for action to finally be taken. Ouellette has been suspended while an investigation is currently underway. Testimonials are now pouring in from former students and other students are also coming forward with similar stories from other schools.

“You feel helpless and ashamed when this happens,” Jabouirik says. “At 15 you have the reflex of blaming yourself when someone in authority tells you these things. As the child of immigrants, you’re already dealing with an identity crisis and trying to establish your place here.”

Jabouirik says it’s imperative that politicians and authority figures speak up and stop denying systemic racism exists because it only emboldens bigots.

“It motivated me to enter a field where I could make a difference,” she says, “like teaching or law, because even in a school as diverse as mine was, the teaching staff wasn’t.”

When I ask Jabouirik how she intends to pursue teaching when Bill 21 prevents women wearing a hijab from becoming one, she sighs. “Do I keep my hijab and find another way to represent my community, or do I take it off and teach, renouncing a huge part of my identity? It’s a choice I should never have to make.”

Why Bill 21 is counterproductive

Which brings me to a connection some refuse to see. One of the main reasons why I’m opposed to Bill 21, Quebec’s so-called secularism legislation now being challenged in court, is that it’s counterproductive as an integration tool and as a prevention tool against religious extremism. It only serves to marginalize, penalize and alienate religious minorities already fully participating in our society, while emboldening bigots like Ouellette.

Bias against religion isn’t secularism. Secularism is the absence of bias towards any one specific religion, and the separation of church and state, which has already been a reality here since the 1960s. Bill 21 is superficial homogeneity meant to appease Quebec’s largely anti-religious base. It’s legislation that pre-emptively penalizes and discriminates against authority figures who wear (scary, foreign, undesirable) religious symbols based on the hypothetical possibility of religious proselytism and religious extremism. And this, despite the fact that there are zero documented cases in Quebec of a person in authority wearing said symbols attempting to exert their influence, and laws already in existence against it if it were to happen.

Nothing was in place, of course,to protect students from the proselytism of Ouellette’s xenophobia, bigotry and racism, while he brazenly used his platform as an authority figure to spew his hate. Ouellette passed under the radar for years. Why? Because anti-religious bias isn’t necessarily considered a bias by many. In fact, distrust of religion has become its own form of religious dogma in this province and we need to acknowledge it as the problem that it has become. And I say this as a staunch atheist.

Systemic racism is also about unconscious biases

Systemic racism is literally a system in place that maintains the status quo and what the majority considers passable and normal. There is no internalized bias against someone who looks and acts like the majority and so there is less of an inclination to question their behaviour and more of a propensity to give them the benefit of the doubt. Favouritism against a dominant group can easily transform into systemic discrimination, even when individual racism is a rarity.

I ask this simple question and I hope readers consider it honestly: If a student or parent had come forward with allegations against a Muslim teacher proselytizing in their classroom, how quickly would action have been taken? How quickly would that teacher have been suspended, expelled, fired, vilified in the public space, used as column fodder by the usual culprits who would scream about Montreal’s Islamization and multiculturalist mayhem? Would those defenders-of free-speech-at-all-costs columnists have rushed to come to their defence?

In the past year, I interviewed numerous teachers forced to make the difficult decision to quit their profession (and, often, Quebec) because they no longer felt appreciated and could no longer advance in their careers because of Bill 21. Teachers who not only didn’t have any accusations against them, but glowing accolades from current and former students and colleagues. While our province is dealing with teacher shortages, we’ve been deprived of their talents and skills because they wear a hijab or a turban on their head, because, according to some, they posed a hypothetical danger to students. But a man who abused, dehumanized and shamed students and their immigrant parents for over a decade was somehow allowed to keep working uninterrupted because he wasn’t seen as a “real danger.”

That’s how systemic racism works. It excuses and pacifies and justifies and looks the other way. It rushes to the defence of someone that looks an awful lot like someone’s favourite uncle or best friend and has a familiar-to-the-majority last name. It’s a mechanism in place that requires a whole lot of people to react in good faith over those who look and act like the majority and in bad faith over those who don’t. Unconscious biases are called blind spots for a reason.

This case should serve as a serious wake-up call. If minority students can’t feel safe to be themselves in a school setting, if they don’t feel they can share their identity and who they are, if they are emotionally and psychologically broken down and shamed by one of their own teachers, and then collectively ignored by a system that should have been protecting them, how does it impact their studies, their future lives, their sense of belonging, their desire to be part of the collective “nous”?

“This isn’t about Montreal North or Henri-Bourassa,” Jabouirik tells me. “This is about Quebec. We love our school, our city, our neighbourhood, we love our province, but sometimes I don’t feel the love back.” ■

Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.