It was a breath of fresh air to have Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante formally acknowledge the presence of systemic racism and discrimination at the City — including with the Montreal police force (SPVM) — and to do so unequivocally and with no needless defensiveness and ambiguity.
Is it enough? Absolutely not. But it’s a solid start and an important admission, given the current context of denial in Quebec when it comes to admitting systemic racism is a real barrier for many.
Mayor Plante made the declaration Monday while addressing the report and anti-racism recommendations by the Montreal consultation bureau regarding the public hearings into systemic racism, which were held last year and just released.
“We’ve seen the studies and the testimonials,” she said. “It’s clear there is systemic racism and it’s time to act.”Precisely! There’s just no more time to be wasted on debating the existence of systemic racism. It’s time to move on to doing something about it.
Substantial changes are needed
The citizen-led report concluded the city has “turned a blind eye” to systemic racism and discrimination in police and the city administration and recommended 38 measures. Among the measures: ways to combat racial profiling, more transparency, eliminating racial bias in the arts, increasing the hiring and promotion of minorities, giving anti-racism training to civil servants and Montreal police and increasing minority representation in municipal politics.
The report could not have come at a better time. Given the global context of Black Lives Matter protests taking place around the world, the increasing anger and frustration and fatigue I’ve seen on daily display as Indigenous and Black people continue to die at the hands of law enforcement — both in the U.S. and right here at home — questions swirling about defunding police and even what public monuments featuring slave owners and white supremacists represent and perpetuate, the report’s release comes at a time of public reckoning and calls for increased accountability.
Denial and deflection
While the world is experiencing a collective awakening and an increasing social awareness regarding systemic and individual racism and the daily micro-aggressions and biases Black people and all people of colour are subjected to, the denial, deflection and dismissal of many Quebecers and Canadians to acknowledge that we have an issue has been disappointing.
Quebec Premier François Legault continues to deny systemic racism exists, somehow under the impression that an acknowledgment would make villains out of Quebecers and give the ROC an excuse to Quebec-bash. The ROC, in the meantime, if one were to read Rex Murphy in the National Post or watch Stockwell Day comparing wearing glasses to experiencing racism on Power & Politics while activist Emilie Nicholas diplomatically — and quite patiently, I might add, for someone who I see so often vilified on social media — raises an exasperated eyebrow, is too busy fumbling its own response to be looking at Quebec. The navel-gazing that goes on between the two majority “founding people” in this country, to the detriment of minorities, is enough to exhaust me most days.
Social movements move slowly, but they move
I know for many involved in Montreal’s citizen-driven initiative, which drew 22,000 signatures, and for activists calling for change for years, Mayor Plante’s statement won’t be enough, and that’s okay. I don’t think it should be enough. Action now needs to follow the words.
It’s important to remember that Balarama Holness had to push through this report and gather signatures to force the city to act on public consultations. Testimonial after testimonial had to take place, 7,000 people had to come forward with their personal experiences and their ideas for Montreal administrators to finally understand and acknowledge that an anti-racism action plan, including the appointing of a Commissioner to Counter Racism and Discrimination, is necessary. Holness and everyone involved are to be commended for stubbornly pushing this through and fighting to be heard.
Social progress is slow. It takes time to change public opinion on contentious issues that make the majority feel bad about its capacity to be open and welcoming. Accusations of racism don’t sit well with a public that still has a hard time understanding the difference between “systemic” and “systematic” and doesn’t fully understand or empathize with issues that don’t affect it personally.
But it’s important to mention and celebrate the progress being made, while pushing for more. There are a few highlights that were not insignificant during the press conference. Mayor Plante mentioned the Viens Commission report into misconduct against Indigenous people by name.
Getting the police on board
She then clearly indicated to the SPVM that they, too, should acknowledge systemic racism within their department, something they did (grudgingly or not) later that same day. It’s not a small thing for a city mayor to clearly state in a non-defensive fashion that the SPVM should acknowledge systemic racism and show awareness and sensitivity towards those discriminated against, and to do so tactfully and carefully, while also pointing to the good the SPVM has done.
I know some activists might feel velvet gloves should not be required when the report clearly indicates Montreal police officers are nearly five times more likely to stop a person of colour than someone who is white, and I get that frustration. But when you have Montreal police chief Sylvain Caron ho-humming and using all sorts of variations of “possibly” and “probably not” when asked about systemic racism, there is a clear gap between what some see clear as day and some have a harder time coming to terms with, and sometimes you can’t get there as quickly as you’d want to.
Finally, Mayor Plante did something interesting by pointing to an important anti-racism pilot project taking place right now with Longueuil chief of police Fady Dagher (who I believe would have been ideal as Montreal police chief). Unlike Chief Caron, Chief Dagher, who is the first Quebec police chief from an immigrant background, hasn’t shied away from admitting that racial profiling and systemic racism are problems within the South Shore police department.
Chief Dagher is responsible for Projet immersion, an integration course for police officers that focuses on immersing them into the daily realities of the communities they serve and fighting racial and social profiling. The emphasis is on non-violence and mental health. For those more interested reforming than defunding the police, this is an example of good policing.
Legault fights what he doesn’t believe exists
In sharp contrast to the Montreal municipal government, the federal government, the SPVM and the RCMP — who have all acknowledged systemic racism — Premier Legault remains steadfast in his denial. If, as James Baldwin once said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced,” we’ve got a long way to go here.
Legault is basically appointing an action group to fight racism in Quebec, while never once uttering the words systemic racism. Acknowledging it is the very first recommendation made by the public consultation office and the Conseil interculturel de Montréal, yet he can’t even bring himself to do that. Legault’s refusal prompted Quebec and Labrador regional chief for the Assembly of First Nations, Ghislain Picard to tweet, “A Quebec Premier refusing to acknowledge there is systemic racism. Not too inspiring if you can’t call the evil by name.”
Chief Picard is right. How do you fight what you can’t even bring yourself to say exists?
Questionable elements of the CAQ task force
In habitual CAQ fashion, Legault is also attempting to move through this way too fast, like castor oil that needs to be swallowed, which isn’t surprising given that he’s suiting up to do battle with an enemy he considers non-existent.
Also, all seven members of the working group are CAQ caucus members, because opposition parties “would slow the process down,” as if democracy isn’t based on a plurality of opinions and a consensus forming after deliberation. There are no Indigenous members.
The funniest part about this strange high-wire act and the verbal acrobatics Legault is engaged in is that the CAQ’s anti-racism task force is preparing to tackle racism in housing, education, the workplace, public security and justice — also known as SYSTEMIC RACISM.
Legault’s denial has partly been shaped by his defense of Bill 21, which many see as systemic racism since it discriminates against Quebecers with visible religious symbols from being hired or promoted in their careers. While supporters of Bill 21 defend it as a secularism for everyone, the fact remains that legislation that violates the Canadian constitution, the Quebec Charter of Rights and Freedoms and penalizes and stigmatizes racial and religious communities, while completely bypassing and unaffecting the majority is literally the definition of building bias and discrimination into the system. Like systemic racism, even if it isn’t malicious or ill-intended, laws that create two-tier citizens or install unnecessary barriers to integration and success are dangerous and damaging.
Appointing Ian Lafreniere, former spokesperson for the Montreal police and someone way too quick in the past to make apologies for racial profiling and police brutality, to the anti-racism task force has also been met with deep scepticism by many.
Hope on the horizon
Regardless, here we are. Mayor Plante admitting there is systemic racism and Premier Legault still denying it. Both, however, are attempting to do something about it, and that is a good thing worth acknowledging and celebrating.
Time, of course, will tell what these actions will reap, and it’s only in the aftermath that we will be able to see how effective the task forces and initiatives will be in reducing systemic racism and increasing representation and equality for all. We’re not moving fast enough, but for the first time in a long time it feels like we’re moving in the right direction. ■
See the complete Montreal public consultation bureau report and anti-racism measures here.
Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.