New report says Montreal has ‘turned a blind eye’ to systemic racism

Mayor Valerie Plante says she plans to move on recommendations to end racism in Montreal.

A report published Monday says the City of Montreal has long turned a blind eye to issues around systemic discrimination and racism.

The 261-page document follows a public consultation involving more than 7,000 people and concludes the city has trouble translating words into action.

The first recommendation is for the city to acknowledge the issue.

“Starting today, at city council, I will propose a statement to recognize the systemic nature of racism and discrimination,” said Montreal Mayor Valerie Plante. “To affirm the city’s solidarity with the thousands of citizens who have denounced racism and discrimination in all its forms.”

As seen in recent weeks, Quebec has struggled with the use of the term “systemic” when describing issues with racism or other bias.

Last year, the Viens Commission, formed to investigate the relationship between Indigenous peoples in Quebec and some of the province’s departments, released a 520-page report and came to one conclusion.

“It seems impossible to deny the systemic discrimination experienced by First Nations and Inuit peoples in their relations with the public services investigated,” wrote Jacques Viens, the retired Quebec Superior Court judge who headed the commission.

Viens also called on the province to apologize to Indigenous peoples for their treatment at the hands of the state – something Premier Francois Legault did before an audience of Indigenous leaders in November 2019.

Progress on the report’s other recommendations has since stalled. The COVID-19 pandemic forced cancellation of the working group meetings initially scheduled to take place this spring.

Also announced Monday, Premier Francois Legault says he’s appointing a task force to examine the issue in the province – but added he doesn’t think there is systemic racism in Quebec.

“My definition of systemic racism is that there’s a system in Quebec of racism, and I don’t think there’s a system,” he told CTV. “Why do we have to fight for months about one word instead of fighting together against racism?”

Montreal’s public consultation office makes 38 recommendations.

The office’s president, Dominique Ollivier, says in a letter to Mayor Valerie Plante accompanying the report that the failure to recognize the problem has left the city without the necessary tools to genuinely tackle it.

The report recommends city council quickly create a new position of Commissioner to Counter Racism and Discrimination, who will draw up an action plan to fight racism.

“Thanks to this report we have a roadmap to guide our efforts,” Plante said during a press briefing Monday.

“It will allow us to move forward quickly. And I am fully committed to introducing systemic solutions to these systemic problems without delay, because there is no time to lose.”

The report also recommends the city and its boroughs produce data every three years detailing variances between racialized, Indigenous and white people in such sectors as employment, racial profiling, housing and economic development.

The question is whether Plante and council will follow through.

According to the summary report, the OCPM finds Montreal’s reconciliation efforts to be “scattered,” and there is a “a discrepancy between the vision of a metropolis of reconciliation and the actual measures taken.”

For example, in February 2018, the City of Montreal created the position of Indigenous Affairs Commissioner – but has yet to renew her mandate.

In June 2019, Montreal renamed a downtown street commemorating genocidal general Jeffrey Amherst.

But other relics of the past – including a much-vandalized bronze effigy of John A. Macdonald – remain, despite numerous requests to remove them.

Police violence against Indigenous people in Montreal is so persistent that First Nations organizations penned a letter to the federal government, imploring them to intervene immediately.

“All those nice words and nice thoughts and speeches that they give on a daily basis, we need action,” said Verna Polson, Anishinaabeg chief and co-signee of the letter addressed to Minister of Indigenous Services, Marc Miller.

Meanwhile, Plante says she’ll appoint a commissioner to combat racism, and that the city’s municipal police force – the SPVM – is reconsidering its stance on body cams.

A new oversight policy for the SPVM’s controversial “street checks” – which disproportionately target Indigenous women and people of colour – is expected next month.

Other recommendations in the report include updating the city’s charter to reflect the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, mandatory sensitivity training for civil servants, better bias screening for police officers and establishment of an Indigenous cultural centre.

In response to the province launching an anti-racism task force, Assembly of First Nations Regional Chief for Quebec and Labrador Ghislain Picard said it’s not necessary.

“Proposing another consultation seems to me to be redundant to say the least and could well be considered unacceptable by a large part of the First Nations population, already too often consulted and still waiting for concrete measures,” says AFNQL Chief Ghislain Picard.

Reporter / Montreal

Lindsay was born and raised on the unceded territory of Tiohtià:ke (Montréal), and joined APTN News as a Quebec correspondent in 2019. While in university, she collaborated on a multiplatform project about the revitalization of the Kanien’kéha (Mohawk) language to commemorate the International Year of Indigenous Languages. Before APTN Lindsay worked at the Eastern Door, CTV Montreal and the Montreal Gazette.