MONTREAL (CUP) — A McGill law student will be filing a complaint with the Quebec Human Rights Commission after witnessing and recording the use of blackface at a frosh activity on Sept. 15.

Anthony Morgan explained he was walking by the Université de Montréal campus when he passed a group of students, dressed in Jamaican colours and “rasta" hats, who were waving the Jamaican flag, chanting, “More weed, ya mon, ya mon!”

Morgan returned to film the incident and posted it on YouTube. He said that when he returned, someone pointed to him, saying, “We’ve got a real black person here.”

“I was just stunned. I couldn't believe what I was seeing,” said Morgan, who is of Jamaican descent. “I felt ... it was very offensive.”

Blackface originated as a form of theatrical makeup in vaudeville to depict black characters, often propagating negative stereotypes.

The students were a group from HEC Montréal, the elite business school affiliated with Université de Montréal. According to a student representative, they were paying tribute to Jamaican sprinter Olympian Usain Bolt.

HEC spokesman Michael Lartigau forwarded an email written by Frank Sciortino, a second-year student and frosh organizer, to Canadian University Press. Sciortino explained that students had to choose an “ambassador” for an Olympics-themed activity. The group depicted in Morgan's video selected Bolt and “decided to costume themselves” as the sprinter. Sciortino wrote that it was not a racist act.

Morgan does not agree. “That is the part of it that is the most violently racist,” he said in response. “[Being black] is not a costume that you put on.”

“Regardless of what the students intended, that is the problem right there,” Morgan continued. “It is wrong, it is a symbol of hatred and denigration. It should not be used in the way that it was used.”

Meanwhile, HEC is looking to turn the incident into a “learning experience.”

“The [student association] and HEC Montréal have jointly decided to offer the organizers of the different student activities a chance to participate in a training program on intercultural issues, as a way of ensuring that future student activities respect the different values of our increasingly multicultural world,” stated a release issued by the school, without explaining any further details.
“I don't put the students themselves at fault,” said Morgan. He thinks that education is key to preventing incidents like this from occurring, and he hopes that a dialogue can be begin on what he considers a “large problem.”

“This is not just about a few bad apples,” said Morgan. “This is about a greater problem about what we think about, how we value, how we understand, how we discuss — if we discuss — black history, culture and contribution.”

Morgan himself worked on a case where a black man was thrown out of amusement park La Ronde for wearing a Bob Marley shirt with marijuana symbols on it. Bruno Moise was told his clothing did not respect the park’s “family values.” The case was mediated with the Commission’s involvement.

Fo Niemi, director of Montreal’s Centre for Research-Action on Race Relations, suggested this type of activity would not be as likely to happen at an English school.

“We’re talking basically about two solitudes, in terms of each solitude’s understanding as to why this does or does not represent racially-offensive stereotypes,” said Niemi, talking about the difference between the anglophone and francophone communities in Quebec. “In the francophone culture, I don’t think we have the same degree of social or race awareness.”

He pointed to recent jokes and sketches in Quebec culture and entertainment as evidence, like the 2008 TV sketches depicting American president Barack Obama.

Advocacy group Black Coalition of Quebec has since called for a human rights inquiry into the “hateful incident.”

In fall 2010, a management students association at McGill University put a halt to a frosh activity when accusations of cultural insensitivity were raised around its tribal theme. A promotional video showed students in costume and face paint, representing four different tribes: the Zulu, Maasai, Inca and Maori.

The incident at HEC has since been covered by news services around the world, including the UK'sDaily Mail.

// Sarah Deshaies
CUP Quebec Bureau Chief

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