Former justice minister backs motion to halt police checks in Montreal

The longtime Liberal MP for Mount Royal and human rights expert, Irwin Cotler, says until legislation is drafted to ensure police street checks are conducted fairly, they should be banned.

Motion to ban police checks until they can be regulated is to be tabled at city council Monday

Former federal Justice Minister Irwin Cotler says, until legislation is drafted to ensure police checks are conducted in an equal manner, they should be banned. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Montreal city council unanimously passed the motion late Monday calling for a moratorium on street checks, though the city cannot enforce the request. You can read more here.

Irwin Cotler, a former federal justice minister and an internationally renowned human rights expert, has endorsed a motion to be tabled at Montreal city council, calling for a moratorium on police street checks in the city.

Cotler says until legislation is drafted to ensure police checks are conducted fairly, they should be banned.

A street check is an interaction between police and civilians, outside of a criminal context, that allows police to ask for a person's identifying information.

Cotler cited a report released in October that found black, Indigenous and Arab people are more likely than white people to be stopped in random street checks by Montreal police.

"The report demonstrated that police checks are arbitrary, selective and discriminatory," said Cotler, who now chairs the Montreal-based Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights.

"It undermines confidence in the administration of justice. It increases alienation between visible minorities and the police, and it tends to result in criminalization of these vulnerable groups."

'Reasonable suspicions' must guide stops: CRARR

The motion to declare an immediate moratorium on street checks is backed by a coalition composed of more than 10 community groups, including the National Council of Canadian Muslims, the Centre for Research Action on Race Relations (CRARR) and the Côte-Des-Neiges Black Community Association. 

CRARR's Alain Babineau, a former RCMP officer, says 'random checks based on a hunch lead to racial profiling.' (Elias Abboud/CBC)

Former RCMP officer Alain Babineau, who now works with CRARR, said police have to be allowed to stop people in order to combat crime, "but at the same time, those stops have to be guided by reasonable suspicions." 

"These types of random checks based on a hunch lead to racial profiling," Babineau said.

When the report demonstrating police bias was released, Montreal police Chief Sylvain Caron said a policy on street checks would be put in effect by March 2020.

However, Babineau says the city has a responsibility to respond immediately to the concerns raised in the report. 

One of the human rights advocates who helped gather 20,000 signatures on a petition that led to the city's public consultations on systemic racism, Balarama Holness, said the issues raised in the report go beyond police street checks.

"Racial profiling doesn't only happen in the streets," Holness said. "That's why we brought forth this public consultation, because these issues of profiling are ubiquitous. They are systemic."

The motion, which is being tabled by opposition Coun. Marvin Rotrand, who represents Snowdon, will also demand the province reform police legislation, emulating Ontario's.

In 2016, Ontario introduced rules dictating that police must inform people that they don't have to provide identifying information during street checks, and that refusing to co-operate or walking away cannot then be used as reasons to compel people to provide ID.

Under those new rules, police may not collect identifying information "arbitrarily," or based on a person's race or presence in a high-crime neighbourhood, in certain instances. 

Montreal police Chief Sylvain Caron said a revised policy on street checks would be in place by March 2020, but a coalition of civil rights groups is calling for a ban on street checks, in the meantime. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

And earlier this year, Nova Scotia placed a moratorium on street checks, saying it is making changes "to better protect individual liberties and maintain public safety."

Nova Scotia's move followed an independent report that found in Halifax, black people were street checked at a rate six times higher than white people.

Cotler says an immediate moratorium is the first step to drafting legislation that regulates police street checks and ensuring accountability. 

In his view, the legislation would have to ensure that police checks are only initiated for public security reasons.

He said in his years as the Liberal MP for Mount Royal, he worked with several of the groups in the coalition and heard stories of racial targeting across the board. 

"Action by the municipality to declare a moratorium would be as timely as it is necessary," said Cotler.

Cotler said that drafting legislation, and declaring a moratorium in the meantime, is in the interest of all those concerned — from the minorities affected to the police to the legislators.


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