Indigenous women denounce ‘devastating’ random street checks in Montreal

“We have to stop delaying race-based data collection as another way to hide or deny terrible racial disparities.”

The Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal has joined a coalition of community groups rallying to force police action on ongoing random street checks – a practice with lingering effects on the city’s urban Indigenous population.

Speaking on behalf of a coalition of 30 community groups this week, Coun. Marvin Rotrand called a press conference at City Hall for two reasons: to “give voice” to Indigenous women and ask Montreal to support the collection of race-based data during police or traffic checks.

For context, the Toronto Police Service recently approved a new policy mandating collection of race-based data, something Mayor John Tory called “a huge step forward.”

It’s the latest move in a tug-of-war between representatives of the city of Montreal and its police force – one that has rolled out over the course of the last three months.

In November, on what he called a “truly profound day,” Rotrand successfully tabled a motion in Montreal city council demanding the municipal police force – the SPVM – enforce a moratorium on random street checks.

“The council said, ‘Hey, street checks for no particular reason are not OK,’ and have got to stop now,” Rotrand explained at the press conference. “People should not have to fear walking the streets in Montreal.”

In October, a report showed marginalized populations – mainly Indigenous, black and Arab Montrealers – were disproportionately stopped by police and asked for identification without cause.

Indigenous women, according to the report, experienced street checks 11 times more than caucasian women.

Former federal Justice Minister Irwin Cotler publicly endorsed the motion, saying the practice of random street checks contradicts the notion of justice. Asking for identification without cause is an infringement on human rights, he told APTN News.

When confronted with statistics showing unjustified targeting of racial minorities, Ontario enforced legislation to control the practice. Nova Scotia is moving forward with plans to do the same.

Montreal police are under fire for arbitrary street and traffic stops. APTN

After Rotrand’s motion passed unanimously, Montreal’s council appealed to Quebec to legislate the same way the latter two provinces had.

Higher-ups with the SPVM reportedly conceded there was “systemic violence” – in Rotrand’s words – and that the report and its research was accurate.

“But they wouldn’t use the word ‘profiling,’” Rotrand explained.

Following the report’s initial release, the SPVM promised to unveil an action plan – or better strategy – where street checks are concerned. That report is due in March 2020, according to Montreal police Chief Sylvain Caron.

But no interim measures have been introduced; Indigenous women living on the street are reporting firsthand the practice is persisting.

“It has quite devastating effects on the lives of Indigenous women,” said Jessica Quijano, co-ordinator of the Iskweu Project. “Especially women who live in poverty or might be living on the streets.”

Iskweu is in initiative of the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal, which works to reduce the number of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, trans and two-spirit in Quebec, while acting as a link between Indigenous women and public resources or institutions.

Living in fear of police, Quijano said, stops Indigenous women from reporting crime or abuse due to fundamental feelings of distrust towards police.

“They do not feel like police will protect them, because they feel targeted,” she added. “It’s putting Indigenous women’s lives in danger. We want to talk about changing the relationship between Indigenous women and police? We need to take away these liberties that we give police officers.”

The coalition, she says, questions whether the SPVM is “still effectively ignoring” the motion passed by council.

“We hear it all the time,” said Nakuset, the shelter’s executive director. “[But] we have yet to see the relationship become stronger. And I really hope that through the work this committee will do, it should be a better working relationship.”

When questioned about the practice of street checks Premier Francois Legault said legislating street checks wasn’t an option as “it’s Montreal.”

“It’s the responsibility of the city of Montreal,” he told reporters at the National Assembly in November.

However, the problem of random police harassment extends beyond Montreal’s city limits.

On November 29, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in favour of a Montreal woman, who was detained, questioned and fined by a police officer at a metro station just north of the city in 2009.

Escalator handrail

Bela Kosioan was handed a $320 ticket for not holding onto an escalator handrail, and refusing to provide identification when police asked for it.

Canada’s highest court found that “a reasonable police officer” in the same circumstances “would not have considered failure to hold the handrail to be an offence.”

The city’s homeless population is often bombarded with police tickets for similarly trivial offences.

In September, a municipal judge dismissed almost 300 low-level charges against “vulnerable” people, ones that ultimately violated their charter rights.

“We have to stop delaying race-based data collection as another way to hide or deny terrible racial disparities in street checks and traffic stops,” said Alain Babineau, advisor on racial profiling and security for the Montreal-based Centre for Research Action on Race Relations. “Two city council committees recommended this back in 2017.”

Added the Iskweu Project’s Quijano: “I believe it would be a promising course of action for restoring relationships with Indigenous peoples in Quebec. Truth and reconciliation require accurate data to document and end discrimination against Indigenous peoples.”

Meanwhile, Rotrand says he has submitted a letter to city administration on behalf of the coalition detailing the benefits of the proposal.

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