MONTREAL — Students at an elite Montreal business school painted themselves in blackface and chanted in mock Jamaican accents at a back-to-school event that had the university expressing regret Thursday.
The frosh-week stunt was organized by a student sports committee at the Hautes Etudes Commerciales, the Universite de Montreal's business school.
Participants were encouraged to dress in Olympic-themed costumes, with one group choosing to portray Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt.
Along with donning the colours of the Jamaican flag, several students also covered their face, arms and legs in black paint. The colourful attire included at least one Rastafarian hat, one green underwear patterned with monkey faces, and a stuffed animal that students carried around.
One witness, who is of Jamaican descent, said he felt uncomfortable and was shocked to hear some students chanting, "Smoke more weed." At one point the students also repeatedly chanted, "Ya man!"
"It was terrible and I felt awful seeing it," said Anthony Morgan, a 25-year-old law student at McGill University.
"Students at that level can't have the idea in their head that this is OK."
Morgan happened to be on the Universite de Montreal's campus on Wednesday afternoon as the event was taking place at the school's football stadium. He recorded the mock sprinters with his Blackberry camera.
He said he found the display deeply offensive because of the troubling historical connotations of blackface.
"It is connected to a longer tradition of minstrel shows, reducing black people to pretty much jokes," he said. "They're put on as a spectacle, to almost look grotesque."
A spokesman for the business school said the stunt was unacceptable — but he said there were no ill intentions. He said the students should simply have chosen another way to get into the Olympic-themed spirit.
"They interpreted the theme poorly," said Michael Lartigau.
"We spoke to the students and they found the reaction regrettable and are sorry."
Lartigau would not comment on whether the students involved would face disciplinary actions.
The director of the sports committee that organized the event said a "great deal of misunderstanding has surrounded" Morgan's video, which has since been posted on YouTube.
In an email forwarded to The Canadian Press, Frank Sciortino said the event was part of the committee's efforts to encourage physical activity and team spirit.
"Group A01, which is seen in the video, is a dynamic and intense group that has displayed great initiative in the schools (sic) student life in the recent years," the email said.
"Track and field was the groups' (sic) choice as athletic discipline... Consequently, group A01 decided to costume themselves as Usain Bolt, emphasizing on the Jamaican colors (sic), his native country.
"My wish was simply to... assure you that in no way were they a racist act."
Morgan said he doesn't hold any hard feelings against the students, but questioned what institutional safeguards were in place to prevent such incidents from happening.
"As problematic as it was for the students to be doing this, I thought it spoke more about the university," he said.
"Is there any oversight in terms of the costumes students pick, the events that they select for first-year students. This is the first engagement these students have with the university."
While HEC is affiliated with the Universite de Montreal, the schools have separate administrations. The HEC student group had to rent the football stadium from the university.
"It is just a shame that at the time this was happening the person didn't call security or somebody at the university so we could have addressed it there and then," said university spokesperson William Raillant-Clark.
Morgan described making eye contact with other visible minorities watching Wednesday's frosh event. He said he felt a shared unease about the proceedings, but wanted to avoid making a scene.
"You don't want to create a situation that is confrontational," he said. "All and all it was just a very uncomfortable, very offensive situation. And so I definitely felt it need to be addressed."
Morgan is considering filing a complaint with the Quebec Human Rights Commission.
HEC is considered among the oldest and most prestigious business schools in Canada.
The higher education company QS ranked it 22nd among 200 North American business schools in 2010, ahead of McGill, the University of British Columbia and Cornell.