A Chibougamau court room was the scene of 10 hours of legal conflict in January involving accusations of racism and sexism against two white teachers at Mistissini’s Voyageur Memorial School.

Teachers Robert Briand and Michel Tremblay were accused of discrimination by another white teacher, Charles Bourassa, after a heated union meeting in Sept. 1992. Now Briand and Tremblay are suing Bourassa for a combined $30,000, saying that his accusations hurt their reputations in Mistissini.

On Jan. 17, witnesses went over that union meeting minute by minute to reconstruct what happened. The next morning legal arguments were summed up by lawyers for both sides, their bills by now mounting into the thousands of dollars.

The union meeting in question was an important event for Cree teachers in Mistissini. Never before had the 50-odd teachers at Voyageur Memorial elected a Cree as their delegate to the Association de l’enseignement du Nouveau-Quebec. The AENQ represents dose to 1,000 teachers and support personnel in the Cree School Board and Kativik School Board.

Unlike in other Cree communities, in Mistissini Cree teachers rarely attend their local union’s meetings. The meetings are conducted only in English and French, with no translation. And the 10 Crees are heavily outnumbered by 40-plus while teachers. But most important is a feeling that a small clique of the white teachers runs the show, which leads the Crees to feel they don’t belong.

Cree teacher Dorothy MacLeod-Nicholls wanted to change that.

She decided to run for union delegate and one of her main supporters was Charles Bourassa. “I thought it was an opportunity to learn how the teachers’ union works and find out why some people say they have no use for it,” she says. Running against her was Robert Briand.

Controversy started right from the beginning. After everyone voted, the chair realized there was no quorum—not enough people were present for the vote to count—so the ballots were tossed into the garbage. After the meeting, Bourassa fished them out and a quick count showed that MacLeod-Nicholls had won handily.

Several days later, another election was held—well, almost. MacLeod-Nicholls accepted to be nominated again, and for the first time Mistissini’s Cree teachers came out to a union meeting in large numbers. Briand was nominated also. But before accepting, he announced he had a question for MacLeod-Nicholls. Briand was ruled out-of-order and told it wasn’t the time to be questioning his opponent. Briand posed his question anyway.

What exactly he asked is subject to dispute. According to the plaintiffs, Briand asked whether she planned to work with a union committee or by herself if elected as delegate. But others remember Briand aggressively questioning MacLeod-Nicholls’ competency to do the job. “What kind of union delegate will you be?” was how Charles Bourassa recalled the question.

MacLeod-Nicholls, whose French isn’t strong, remembers Briand’s tone more than anything. “It was rapid, it was aggressive. All I know is he was verbally attacking me. I felt intimidated.”

At this point, Michel Tremblay jumped into the dispute. Tremblay claims he was concerned that the chair mistranslated Briand’s question into English. He maintains he merely asked the chair not to “editorialize” in the translating. Other witnesses say Tremblay was also on the war-path against MacLeod-Nicholls.

Either way, Tremblay’s remarks didn’t calm things down. “It developed into a free-for-all,” remembers Tremblay. “I don’t know why. I do know there were people who were huffy. The situation certainly evolved in a very non-tolerant fashion.”

Eventually, all the Cree teachers including MacLeod-Nicholls, who was in tears, and some of her white supporters got up and left the room. A vote wasn’t held.

Days later, Charles Bourassa wrote a letter to teachers at the school saying MacLeod-Nicholls had been the victim of a “discriminatory attitude” on the part of “a group of mafioso.”

“We will all tell Dorothy that this is her village, that she is able to do this job,” he wrote. “Enough is enough. This time they have gone too far.”

Soon, the plaintiffs claim, everyone in town was talking about the letter, thus harming their reputations. In his defense,

Bourassa’s lawyer has two arguments—what the letter said is true, and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms gives him the right to say it.

Tremblay claims that in ensuing weeks, the school was hit by “a rising tide of violence.” In Nov. 1993, Tremblay himself was allegedly involved in a scuffle with a female Cree student at the door of the school, for which he was later summoned to a disciplinary meeting by the school board. The meeting never took place.

Following the scuffle, a physician diagnosed him with “generalized anxiety,” and he took eight months of sick leave. After that, Tremblay took another leave of absence to study in Quebec City. He hopes to return to work in Mistissini.

Briand still works at Voyageur Memorial as a French teacher.

At a later meeting, teacher Guy Verville was elected as the union’s delegate. Cree teachers didn’t attend this meeting.

The judge will rule soon on the lawsuit.