As January transitions into February, events ranging from an Afrobeat dance party to an art exhibition entitled “Symbols of Resistance” surface across Montreal in honour of Black History Month (BHM). The month-long event celebrates the accomplishments of black individuals and communities from Quebec and across the globe (Indongo). However, the celebration must span 12 months of the year. This year’s theme, “Black history is made every day,” emphasizes that fact by acknowledging the contributions of black people, both past and present (Indongo). For non-black folk, celebrating black history month doesn’t simply mean appreciating and learning about these achievements. It is also imperative to recognize the perpetuation of anti-black racism by individuals and institutions alike, across Montreal and beyond. Non-black folk will never fully grasp these systemic barriers, however, because we have the privilege of not facing obstacles due to our race in our day-to-day lives; still, we must recognize their widespread existence. The events put on by Black History Month have raised awareness of the ways in which Montreal has institutionalized and legitimized systems of power that privilege whiteness, continuing to affect black lives today. A recent racial profiling scandal committed by the Service de police de la Ville de Montréal (SPVM) has demonstrated just this. The policing of black bodies has not dissipated since the Jim Crow era, systemic racism is not just historic, and the world needs Black History Month now.
Racial profiling is defined as “the unjustified actions by authority figures toward members of a particular race or ethnicity” (Solyom). This attack is often directed at black peoples due to the racist perception of the black body as inherently dangerous (Demirtürk 221). Montreal’s racial profiling problem is not a secret — but despite numerous cases, complaints, and accusations, the city has failed to change.
The latest publicized accusation of racial profiling directed at the SPVM was made by Jason Withrow after leaving a restaurant with his friend on January 26, 2018 as reported by Phil Carpenter. Wilthrow told Carpenter that the police pulled him over and asked if he had drugs or weapons in the car; Withrow said “no” and the police replied “OK you’re going to jail.” The article describes how, after being handcuffed and driven away in the police car, the police shoved a black box in front of Wilthrow’s face. Withrow had no idea what was going on because police refused to speak to him, an anglophone, in English. (Carpenter) Withrow was eventually released, according to the article, only after his car was towed -- but with no cash on him, he had no way to get home. Later, after consultation with the Center for Research-Action on Race Relations, it was determined that Withrow was charged for refusing to take a breathalyzer test (which was apparently what the black box was), but it was a request he didn’t know was asked of him, due to the language barrier (Carpenter). Now, due to the simple fact that Withrow, an anglophone black man, was driving his car home from dinner, his car has now been impounded for 30 days, and his license suspended for 90 (Carpenter). He also has a charge on his criminal record that Carpenter says could affect his Canadian citizenship application.
Unfortunately, Withrow’s case is not an isolated instance, but represents the daily injustices that black people - especially black men - face in Montreal. Despite supposed efforts to mitigate the problem, racial profiling has increased. The Montreal North borough - a predominantly racialized community - saw a 126% increase in identification checks by police officers between 2001 and 2007 (Chung). The majority of the checks targeted black men. From 2003 to 2014, 208 complaints of racial or social profiling were filed with the Quebec Human Rights Commission. With the implementation of ECLIPSE - a police squad formed to crack down on street gangs - these complaints skyrocketed, according to the report (Rukavina).
Demographics play a large role in the policing of black lives; despite the fact that Montreal consists of 30% visible minorities, they only represent 7% of the police force (Rukavina). Moreover, the Quebec Human Rights Commission (CDPDJ) currently has “almost no managers from racial minority backgrounds” and “no anglophones” (Rukavina). In 2009, Victor Whyte, who was violently beaten after officers accused him of getting on a city bus without paying, filed a complaint with the CDPDJ; he has not received compensation to this day (Jelowicki). Increasing the representation of people of colour (POC) in the police force and the groups supposed to hold them accountable is a step in the right direction -- but this will not affect the root issue if their white colleagues hold onto the same racist sentiments.
In 2015, a report was created using data from a survey of over 150 officers and numerous in-person interviews to determine goals regarding racial profiling which the SPVM, supposedly, desired to overcome (Rukavina). The follow-up report, released in 2017, demonstrated that the police “have failed to achieve many of the objectives they set for themselves in a plan to address racial profiling five years ago”, according to reporter Steve Rukavina. Alexandre Popovic, who leads the Coalition Against Police Repression and Abuse, told Rukavina that “nothing much had changed since the last time a study was done on police attitudes toward race by a UQAM professor in 1993”. It was revealed in a 2017 survey that the racial profiling training - included in the 2015 report, lasting half a day - did not change policeman’s awareness of their actions (Rukavina). Popovic said the report was not intended to foster meaningful change in the first place: “it was a public relations plan,” he said, “they wanted nice headlines to say the Montreal police were dealing with racial profiling.” (Rukavina)
The lead author of the follow-up report is Myrna Lashey: a McGill psychiatry prof, who also happens to be this year’s spokesperson for Black History Month in Montreal. Lashley suggests that the root of the problem is that “the police don’t understand the lives of the people they’re policing” (Rukavina). In an article she wrote on behalf of BHM, Lashley asserts that inclusivity is only possible through understanding: “all histories must be recognized,” she said, and “all groups and persons must be brought into the body politic.” One of the goals of BHM is to make people aware of these histories.
For non-black folks, BHM requires a recognition that must extend past one’s February calendar. This entails the increased scrutiny of institutions such as the SPVM, which is only one example among many in Montreal. However, critical attention must not only be directed outwards; this is also a time for non-black folk to be cognisant of our privilege. The very ability to drive to work without worrying that a cop will pull you over and interrogate you on the basis of your skin tone is a privilege. As Lashley states, “black history is not a thing apart, it is an integral part of Quebec and Canadian history” (Rukavina). The legacies of slavery are present in Montreal today, manifesting in different ways -- but ways that are equally important.
Carpenter, Phil. “Montreal resident from the U.S. says he was racially profiled.” Global News, 5 Feb. 2018, globalnews.ca/news/4005648/montreal-resident-from-the-u-s-says-he-was-racially-profiled/.
Chung, Andrew. “Racial profiling 'alarming' in Montreal.” Thestar.com, 9 Aug. 2010, www.thestar.com/news/canada/2010/08/09/racial_profiling_alarming_in_montreal.html
Demirtürk, Lâle. “Black bodies, white gazes: the continuing significance of race.” Melus, vol. 34, no. 4, 2009, doi:https://doi.org/10.1353/mel.0.0061.
Indongo, Nantali. “Celebrating Black History Month, in ways large and small.” CBCnews, CBC/Radio Canada, 2 Feb. 2018, www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/black-history-month-montreal-2018-1.4513905.
Gazette, Montreal. “Montreal police department, officer ordered to pay $17,000 for racial profiling.” Montreal Gazette, 17 Feb. 2017, montrealgazette.com/news/local-news/montreal-police-department-cop-must-pay-17000-for-racial-profiling.
Solyom, Catherine. “Report kept under wraps shows plan has failed to curb racial profiling by Montreal police.” Montreal Gazette, 21 Nov. 2017, montrealgazette.com/news/local-news/report-kept-under-wraps-shows-plan-has-failed-to-curb-racial-profiling-by-montreal-police.