Campus Activism off the Rails: Revisiting St. Lewis v. Rancourt
Within academia, the discovery of truth involves a deep commitment to evidence-based research. Sometimes, however, inquiry is sacrificed in favour of activism.
These conflicting loyalties were at the heart of Joanne St. Lewis v. Denis Rancourt, a contentious legal battle that five years ago pitted two University of Ottawa professors against one another over allegations of systemic racism on campus.
The case remains relevant because it exposes what happens to any professor who privileges ideology over critical thinking.
St. Lewis v. Rancourt: In a Nutshell
Denis Rancourt, former professor of physics at the University of Ottawa, and Joanne St. Lewis, Assistant Professor of law, entered the public spotlight when the authors of a 2008 Student Appeal Centre (‘SAC’) report claimed that systemic racism was the reason campus minorities were disproportionately accused of academic fraud.
Professor St. Lewis was instructed by the university administration to assess the accuracy of the SAC report’s findings.
She noted in her evaluation that the SAC report was too methodologically flawed to know whether systemic racism played any role in accusations of academic fraud.
Instead of assessing the SAC report for himself and providing a comprehensive analysis of its assumptions, Rancourt resorted to ad hominem attacks.
On his 2011 U of O Watch blog, he twice referred to St. Lewis, who is black, as then President Allan Rock’s “house negro”—someone who is a traitor to her race. After Rancourt refused to remove the offending posts, St. Lewis sued him for libel.
The SAC Report: The Document in Question
In a 2008 SAC report titled Mistreatment of Students, Unfair Practices and Systemic Racism at the University of Ottawa, the authors’ remarks below sparked the initial controversy:
“Out of the 48 students who consulted the Student Appeal Centre between November 1, 2007 and October 31, 2008 with cases of academic fraud, 71% were visible minorities. Arab, Black and Asian men and women – these are the students that most often get accused of academic fraud. This systemic racism at the University of Ottawa must stop.”
Ironically, not a single minority whose testimony was highlighted in the report suggested that racism was the root cause of their troubles.
In fact, one of the witnesses understood that “what she did was contrary to the policy on academic fraud” and that she had made “an honest mistake”. As the SAC report noted, “many international students are unfamiliar with our [the University of Ottawa’s] overly strict system of academic fraud”.
Moreover, Student Appeal Centre Coordinator Mireille Gervais acknowledged that the SAC report was not scientific; rather, it was based on the centre’s experience meeting with hundreds of individual students.
Despite these red flags, the authors were unwavering in their position: “The statistics speak for themselves: how long will the U of O continue to follow its racist and punitive system of academic fraud?”.
Due to the serious nature of the allegation, Professor St. Lewis was asked by university administration to verify whether systemic racism played a role in accusations of academic fraud.
Joanne St. Lewis: Inquiry Informs Truth
St. Lewis’ evaluation was critical of the SAC report, mainly because of its “methodological failures” and “lack of substantiation”.
For instance, she was troubled by the report’s sample size—a mere 48 cases of academic fraud. This amounted to 0.12% of the entire university population, which at the time consisted of 37, 000 students.
St. Lewis wrote, “When the pool of subjects to be examined is so small it is critically important that the data is approached cautiously and evaluated carefully. This does not appear to have been the case here”.
The report was also plagued by confirmation bias. The authors did not consider alternative explanations that could challenge their initial hypothesis.
They simply identified the existence of a demographic—visible minorities—and then assumed that systemic racism must be the reason these same minorities were accused of academic fraud. As St. Lewis pointed out, “the reality of the demographic does not explain the why of the reality”.
St. Lewis listed other factors that may have contributed to a student’s misunderstanding of university guidelines surrounding academic fraud.
These included: the year of study of the student, previous academic experience, prior experience writing papers, program of study, and personal life experience.
As well, no attempt was made by the report’s authors to assess the language skills of those accused of academic fraud. This is important, especially when dealing with complex instructions involving plagiarism.
St. Lewis also recognized how key concepts which “directly affect the conclusions” were not operationalized.
She asked, “Who are visible minorities for the purpose of the report’s author? What was the method used to determine who would be in that category? [. . . .] What is the definition of international student being used”.
Because of these methodological weaknesses, St. Lewis concluded that the SAC report did not establish the claim of systemic racism “in any reasonable or analytically plausible fashion”.
That said, St. Lewis could not categorically exclude the possibility of bias, so one of her recommendations suggested that the university’s administration “conduct an independent assessment to determine whether systemic racism plays any part in the Academic Fraud process”.
Denis Rancourt: Activism Informs Truth
Like the SAC authors, Rancourt was unable to establish a causal link between racism and accusations of academic fraud. Undeterred, he decided to use more aggressive tactics to achieve his ends. In December, 2008, Rancourt’s blog, U of O Watch, criticized Professor St. Lewis’ evaluation as “unprofessional” and “intellectually dishonest.”
Rancourt insisted that St. Lewis and the university administration were involved in a conspiracy. On his U of O blog in 2011, he noted that back in 2008, when the Student Appeal Centre “first publicly exposed the problem of systemic racism at the University of Ottawa, the university’s response was a campaign of denigration and cover up personally managed by president Allan Rock.”
This is ironic since Allan Rock made it clear in an e-mail (dated November 17th, 2008) that the administration “imposed no limitations, constraints or conditions” on St. Lewis’ report and that “she has been entirely free to say anything she wants.”
When his activist agenda failed to gain traction, Rancourt made the issue personal: he referred to St. Lewis as Allan Rock’s “house negro.”
Rancourt’s problems began once he purposely chose not to evaluate or to even comment on the key document in question: the SAC report.
Just this past fall, Rancourt revealed in the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship (September, 2018 issue) that he “never addressed the validity of systemic racism,” that he “did not make a pronouncement on the validity of the student union report methodology,” and more importantly, that he did not “make an analysis of the degree of confidence one can have in [the SAC report’s] specific conclusions.”
As Rancourt confessed, “I could have done this, but I did not.”
Even with this glaring oversight, Rancourt is adamant that he made a “reasoned opinion” concerning the “form and content” of St. Lewis’ criticism of the SAC report—a report he could not be bothered to analyze.
Had he performed a detailed assessment, Rancourt would have known that the SAC report’s conclusions were baseless. But this would have marked the end of his radical activist campaign against Professor St. Lewis, Allan Rock, and the university administration.
Instead of embracing the academic value of inquiry, Rancourt pledged his total allegiance to political advocacy. That choice eventually led to his downfall.
Aftermath: Lessons Not Learned
St. Lewis v. Rancourt is now part of legal history, but the case serves as an important reminder that the first casualty of ideology is truth.
The Ontario Superior Court disagreed, finding in favour of the plaintiff, Joanne St. Lewis, and awarding her a judgment of nearly $500,000. Justice Michel Charbonneau scolded Rancourt during the trial for using “untenable defences” and “unreasonable tactics.” Rancourt blamed the loss on a biased judge and a kangaroo court.
Unsuccessful in appeals court, Rancourt has become increasingly adept at turning victimhood into performance art.
He still insists that his use of the term “house negro” must be viewed “in the context of a struggle for justice and in good faith.” In other words, his goals were noble, but in today’s university climate, institutions have become “reactionary” to any “violations of politically correctness.”
Rancourt contends that the fundamental issue at stake was never defamation of character but free speech—specifically, the undermining of his academic freedom.
Herein lay the crux of the matter: academic freedom is not absolute. Its credibility is predicated on a professor’s honest search for truth, not his blind obsession with activism.
Stuart Chambers, Ph.D., is a professor in the school of sociological and anthropological studies at the University of Ottawa. Contact: [email protected]
Ari Hoffman is an Op-ed contributor to the Post Millennial and the host of the Canary in a Coal Mine Podcast. He has been featured on 60 Minutes with Anderson Cooper, Fox and Friends, The Dr. Drew Show and The Glen Beck Program.
On Monday, the Seattle City Council unanimously passed the “Winter Evictions Ban”, legislation that prevents property owners from evicting tenants during the winter in Seattle. The sponsor of the bill, Council Member Kshama Sawant, cites the large percentage of evicted tenants who end up homeless, and the grave danger to their health from being exposed to the elements during winter.
The bill is the first of its kind in the United States, for good reason: It will create less housing options in Seattle while driving up the cost of housing.
Ironically, one of the biggest causes of Sawant’s eviction grievances is Seattle’s Public Housing, the Seattle Housing Authority, which has been written up for evicting tenants over small amounts of owed rent.
The average property owner will now have to assume that a tenant will not pay rent for three months. As such, small landlords will increase the price of units to compensate. Seattle already limits the maximum security deposit to one month’s rent less any nonrefundable fees charged. Additionally, the use of criminal history in tenant screening is prohibited and housing providers must screen applicants in the order the housing provider receives the completed applications, and offer tenancy to the first applicant that provides a completed application and qualifies under the housing provider’s screening criteria. Housing providers will now have to assume the “worst case scenario” about every applicant and adjust pricing accordingly. What is the incentive for anyone to pay their rent during the winter months with this legislation in place? A person can qualify for a unit in October, move into the unit in November, not pay rent through March and then vanish after having wrecked the unit and the expense will fall on the property’s owner. This legislation sends a message to property owners loud and clear, you only get the protection of the law three-quarters of the year.
The average property owner will now have to assume that a tenant will not pay rent for three months. As such, small landlords will increase the price of units to compensate. Seattle already limits the maximum security deposit to one month’s rent, less any nonrefundable fees charged. Additionally, the use of criminal history in tenant screening is prohibited and housing providers must screen applicants in the order the housing provider receives the completed applications, and offer tenancy to the first applicant that provides a completed application and qualifies under the housing provider’s screening criteria. Housing providers will now have to assume the “worst case scenario” about every applicant and adjust pricing accordingly. As a property manager I can tell you that there is no incentive for anyone to pay their rent during the winter months with this legislation in place. A person can qualify for a unit in October, move into the unit in November, not pay rent through March and then vanish after having wrecked the unit and the expense will fall on the property’s owner. This legislation sends a message to property owners loud and clear, you only get the protection of the law three-quarters of the year.
The average small property owner wants to keep a good tenant and help tenants stay, otherwise they have an empty unit not earning revenue. They often take a good tenant at a lower rate. They work with struggling tenants to keep them because it is more expensive to evict a tenant than find a way to help them through a short rough financial patch. When faced with increasing costly and onerous regulations, property owners will find work arounds and raise their qualification requirements leading to more people without access to housing.
According to the city, over 20,000 of the city’s 32,000 registered rental properties are single-unit properties (out of 367,800 housing units altogether in the city, of which about 53 percent are rented out), many of which are owned by a small landlord. Many property owners count on rental income to pay mortgages, utilities, education and other bills so now the onus of this legislation falls on them. This will hit smaller property owners harder than it will larger property ownership companies that can spread out the loss over more units. Many retirees have spent a lifetime investing in every dime into a few properties and count on the revenue for their day to day expenses.
In Seattle, there are already housing vouchers and rental assistance solutions that could have been augmented to address the eviction concern. Instead, an amendment was added to the final bill to create a new mitigation fund to provide rent assistance to property owners during the months that the eviction ban is in place. While a property owner is going through government channels, waiting on a theoretical new fund, their unpaid expenses continue to accumulate. Now you have a landlord and a tenant in dire financial straits.
Developers will question building units in Seattle when faced with the possibility that tenants will abuse the legislation and cause developers to lose money on projects. Instead they will invest in neighboring cities that do not have this legislation and have less onerous building regulations. This removes the incentive to create more units and as a result of less inventory, costs on available units will rise. Small landlords are already selling their units because of the onerous and costly landlord/tenant regulations. Due to the high cost of home ownership in Seattle, duplex units are bought as single family homes because they cannot be made profitable as rentals and in doing so decrease the amount of available rentals.
Solutions to evictions could have included tax deductions for average property owners to offset low income tenants. Easier access and more funding for vouchers and diversion funds, aka housing assistance for tenants could be provided. The Home Base program at United Way is an excellent example of emergency funding for tenants. This is similar to how the SNAP program and area food banks help subsidize groceries, rather than requiring stores to provide free food. Tax deductions and raising height restrictions for developers who build low income housing as part of a development could have increased the supply of units thereby reducing the cost of units.
The sponsor of the legislation, Council Member Sawant, is a Marxist.
According to Karl Marx in the Communist Manifesto: “The communist theory can be summed up in the single phrase: abolition of private property.”
This legislation is an early step in that process. Sawant was joined in her support of this legislation, and opposition of amendments, by new Council Member Tammy Morales. Morales, who claimed not to be a member of the Democratic Socialists of America(DSA) and pulled out of events with Sawant last minute to get through the primaries, changed her tune heading into the general election and proudly proclaimed she was a member of DSA. She was also endorsed by Sawant’s radical extremist group the Socialist Alternative and supported by Bernie Sanders.
Morales lives in a 4,750 Sqft, six-bedroom, $2.1 million house that she bought for $1.8 million after the “McMansion” had been developed by bulldozing a $500,000 home. The house has a “Mother In Law” apartment with separate entrance–perfect for a rental.
From the listing: “This immaculate 6+bd, 4.5ba craftsman w/ separate MIL apt is a rarity.” Interestingly, the apartment is not registered as an approved rental unit, so it is either not being rented or being rented illegally. Ironically, Morales recently did an interview with The Stranger where one of the lines in the article was: “It seems like every other house in Columbia City gets replaced by ugly glassy mansions.” Morales continued “…allowing backyard cottages and the city’s Housing Affordability and Livability plan as possible solutions to reducing displacement.”
So why does she not practice what she preaches? The apartment could help alleviate housing constraints in a manner she advocates for, in her own neighborhood, which has very few rentals. Yet, it appears she chooses not to rent out her spare apartment.
Seattle officials including the Mayor have called the legislation an “…unworkable starting point.” And yet Morales and Sawant along with the rest of the council pushed it through, knowing the negative effects it would have on property owners and the people the council is claiming to want to help. If this was truly designed to help the over 11,000 unsheltered individuals and family members on the streets of Seattle, it would address the opioid crisis which according to Seattle officials in a lawsuit against Perdue Pharma account for “…80% of the unsheltered.”
Instead, this is just another step towards the abolition of property rights in Seattle.
VIA Rail has announced that it is suspending train travel between Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal as a result of the ongoing blockade by anti-pipeline protestors.
“In view of the current uncertainty due to the blockade near Belleville, ON, VIA is cancelling all departures until Thursday end of day on between MTL-TOR & TOR-OTT. Affected passengers will receive an email & full refund.” VIA tweeted Tuesday evening.
VIA spokesperson Marie-Anna Murat said, “We know that this unfortunate situation has an impact on our passengers travelling plans and we apologize for the inconvenience it is causing. We encourage them, if they need to travel in the affected areas over the next 2 days, to use alternative modes of transportation.”
“Via has cancelled 157 trains since the blockade began along CN Rail tracks on Thursday, affecting at least 24,500 passengers,” CBC reports.
Liberal Transport Minister Marc Garneau said he “very concerned” by the anti-pipeline protestors, but has taken no action to remedy the situation thus far.
Over the last week, major parts of Canada’s infrastructure have been at a standstill due to blockades erected by activists opposed to the Coastal GasLink pipeline being built in Northern British Columbia.
In Vancouver Island, protesters erected barricades to stop cars from accessing public highways. In Vancouver proper, 57 demonstrators were arrested after judges granted an injunction to remove a blockade that had stopped workers from entering the Port of Vancouver.
Likewise, in Ontario, protestors decided to occupy the office of the Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations in Toronto—chanting slogans like, “Canada is an illegitimate, violent, colonialist state.”
More worryingly, however, demonstrators blocked the train tracks in Belleville, Ontario, bringing all freight and passenger trains between Canada’s two largest cities and the nations capital to a halt.
The protests have effectively paralyzed Canada’s infrastructure. As a result of this, and with the Conservative Party’s leadership election picking up steam, Canadians deserve to know where the prospective leaders of Canada’s official opposition stand on the issue of the day.
When The Post Millennial reached out to Gladu, she stated that “this is an illegal protest and the rule of law must be enforced.”
“Keep in mind many of the activists are not even from this region or First Nation people. While we must consult and take action to address First Nations concerns, the rule of law is paramount as is the safety of Canadians,” Gladu added.
Erin O’Toole has made his stance clear on both Twitter and in a comment to The Post Millennial, telling Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to “stop the illegal blockades.”
When O’Toole spoke to The Post Millennial, the Durham MP said, “We need to be telling Canadians why our natural resource and energy projects are in the national interest. Justin Trudeau has waffled on why the resource sector is important. He never sells Canada’s position as an energy superpower in the world. And now look where we are.”
O’Toole went on to add that he saw “people are using #ShutDownCanada and accusing the RCMP of apartheid, which is ridiculous and an insult to our brave men and women in uniform. There are protests escalating to blockades that stop people from going to work or seeing their families.”
“This is extremely disruptive and we must enforce court injunctions. The rule of law must be upheld.”
Rick Peterson has been vocal about his policy platform, and he is similarly vocal in his comments over #ShutDownCanada.
“The world is watching and waiting to see how Canada reacts. Will the Liberal government defend the rule of law? Will it stand up to those who disrupt, delay and try to kill responsible resource development with illegal protests?”
“It’s clear what the response should be. Clear the tracks. Now. Any delay in getting this done will only encourage more of the same. It is time to be bold,” said Peterson.
Peter MacKay has not yet made a comment on the recent #ShutDownCanada protests, nor did he respond to The Post Millennial’s messages in time for this article’s publication.
MacKay has also stated on Twitter that he welcomed the Trans Mountain Pipeline. MacKay further added, “The removal of any remaining barriers to the construction of the Trans Mountain Pipeline is great news for Alberta.”
Liberal Transport Minister Marc Garneau is “very concerned” by the anti-pipeline protestors who have blocked the tracks between Ottawa, Toronto, and Montreal, according to CBC News.
These protests have crippled Canada’s infrastructure, particularly due to the fact that the protestors are blocking one of the busiest intersections of the countries transport network.
The protestors have blocked the tracks in Bellville, Ontario, which serves as the epicentre for all routes between Canada’s two largest cities and the capital of the nation. All passenger trains and freight trains have been blocked.
CN has chosen to shut down all train travel until the dispute is resolved, despite the fact that the train company received an injunction to remove the protestors from the tracks.
These protests have effectively shut down all passenger travel between these cities, and are having a significant impact on the transport of food and commercial goods. The effect on the economy if this blockade continues will be severe.
These protests have been ongoing since Thursday when demonstrators began to gather at the tracks. Since then, the protests have only gained more traction and attracted more demonstrators to the scene.
The demonstrators say that they are standing in solidarity with Wet’suwet’en chiefs. However, the northern B.C.First Nation officially supports the Coastal GasLink pipeline.
So far, Via Rail has had to cancel 157 trips in the Toronto-to-Montreal corridor: 24,500 passengers have been affected.