By TOM GODFREY
A leading Ottawa law professor says her dignity has been restored after winning a defamation suit against a fired University of Ottawa colleague who called her a “house Negro” on his blog.
Joanne St. Lewis, whose family is from Trinidad, filed a $1-million suit against Denis Rancourt, a former physics professor who was fired by the university in 2009.
The former Toronto resident was called the university president Allan Rock’s “house Negro” in two 2011 blog postings. Rock was a former Etobicoke MP and Minister of Justice and then Health under former Prime Minister Jean Chretien.
A Superior Court of Justice month-long jury trial in Ottawa that ended last week ruled Rancourt had acted maliciously and awarded St. Lewis $350,000 in damages.
“I am hopeful that this strong decision by a jury will stop others from following in this man’s footsteps,” St. Lewis told Share. “People need to know that racist speech and false speech have consequences.”
Court was told that St. Lewis was “cyber-bulled” in being called derogatory names by a then fired Rancourt on several websites. The posts were re-tweeted and picked up on other sites.
The professors did not know each other and had never met.
“It has been a very difficult and challenging last three years,” she said. “I have been worried for my family. People who care for you suffer with you.”
The university is paying for her legal fees, which is estimated at $450,000.
St. Lewis, 55, is a former director of the university’s Human Rights Research and Education Centre and executive assistant to Raj Anand, then Chief Commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission.
“It has been very stressful and a demanding time and I look forward to getting back to my life,” she said. “I felt for some time that I had lost my dignity and this case shows that diversity is about more than words.”
She recalled feeling “shocked and overwhelmed” after reading the postings online.
The “house Negro” comments were made in two articles posted by Rancourt on his university blog in response to St. Lewis’ evaluation of a student-produced report alleging systemic racism in the university’s academic fraud process, the court heard.
St. Lewis was asked to evaluate the report and concluded that its methodology was weak and its conclusions were unsupported. She also recommended that the university launch an independent review to determine if racism played a role in its academic fraud process.
A professor for 15 years, St. Lewis has focused on human rights and social justice issues throughout her career. She said the derogatory names “swallowed up” her many professional accomplishments.
In a statement of claim, St. Lewis said Rancourt’s comments likened her evaluation to academic fraud, implied that she supported racism, lacked integrity and “acted in a servile manner” toward Rock.
St. Lewis was the first Black female law student at the University of British Columbia and the only Black woman elected as a bencher of the Law Society of Upper Canada.
She has held a senior position with the Ontario Race Relations Directorate and was Executive Director of the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF). She was also Special Assistant Government Affairs to the Grand Chief of the Crees of Quebec.
“She has fought all her life against racism, against discrimination and for minority rights,” said her lawyer, Richard Dearden.
Rancourt faces a contempt of court charge if he doesn’t remove the offensive postings from a number of websites.
He will return to court on Sept 25.