After years of complaints about systemic discrimination by Montreal police, why is the chief surprised?

The findings in a report released Monday — that Montreal police engage in systemic discrimination in targeting Indigenous, black and Arab people — reinforced what victims of racial profiling and civil liberties groups have been saying for decades.

Findings that SPVM officers target Indigenous, black and Arab people back what victims have said for decades

Before Sylvain Caron took over as Montreal police chief last December, he was the deputy head of the Quebec provincial police force. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

The findings in a report released Monday — that Montreal police engage in systemic discrimination in targeting Indigenous, black and Arab people — reinforced what victims of racial profiling and civil liberties groups have been saying for decades.

But for the head of the Montreal police service (SPVM), those findings apparently came as a shock.

SPVM Chief Sylvain Caron told reporters he was "very surprised" by the conclusions of the report, prepared by three experts for the City of Montreal.

"You have to understand that advocacy groups, some of them maybe have agendas," said Insp. André Durocher, an SPVM spokesperson, trying to explain the chief's reaction.

"That's fine. But we want to go with something factual."

Well, here are some additional facts.

Racial profiling a longstanding concern

This is far from the first time experts have concluded there are problems in the way the SPVM interacts with visible minorities.

Shortly after Mayor Valérie Plante took office in 2017, a report found police had failed to achieve many of the objectives they'd set for themselves in a plan to address racial profiling five years earlier.

McGill psychiatry Prof. Myrna Lashley, the report's author, said at the time police missed the mark in many areas, noting the dearth of training programs, a dismal record in the hiring of visible minorities and the lack of transparency.

"The police don't understand the lives of the people they're policing," Lashley said.

A year later, another study found that young people from the racially diverse, low-income neighbourhood of Saint-Michel are subject to "widespread and systemic" racial profiling by Montreal police.

And this summer, a Quebec judge approved a request to go ahead with a class action lawsuit against the City of Montreal on behalf of those alleging racial profiling.

The judge found the experiences of the lead plaintiff, a man of Haitian origin who claims he was wrongfully detained by the SPVM, were not unique.

"Rather, they validate the hypothesis that Montreal police officers engage in systemic racial profiling," Superior Court Justice André Prévost wrote.

Verdun resident Alexandre Lamontagne, the lead plaintiff in the class action lawsuit, says police racially profiled him in 2017. The charges against him were eventually dropped. (CBC)

Plante promised to make sure things changed — and her administration released an action plan last year aimed at addressing racial profiling.

But the problems persist, according to dozens of individuals who have gone public with their own stories.

In a typical case, Davids Mensah, originally from Ghana, was working as a delivery man for a restaurant when he was pulled over by police in Montreal North for having a burnt-out tail light.

He told CBC News that police repeatedly asked him if he had drugs on him and forcefully arrested him without telling him why.

"I didn't even get the chance to turn around, and they grabbed my arm, and they smacked my head against my car," Mensah said.

In Mensah's case, the SPVM and two of its officers were found guilty of racial profiling by the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal and ordered to pay the victim $14,000 in damages.

Many cases do not make it to the courts or some other tribunal, as many Indigenous people and visible minorities don't know how to complain, don't trust the complaints process or give up on the process when their complaints get mired in delays.

Indigenous women most vulnerable

The authors of Monday's report analyzed data collected between 2014 and 2017 during police "street checks," situations in which officers stop people who have not necessarily committed an infraction.

The report found that Indigenous women, in particular, were overrepresented — 11 times more likely to be stopped by police than white women.

"We see it on an everyday basis," said Jessica Quijano, co-ordinator of the Iskweu Project at Montreal's Native Women's Shelter.

"Indigenous women, especially Indigenous women in poverty, are stopped on a daily basis by police."

Jessica Quijano, co-ordinator of the Iskweu project at the Native Women's Shelter of Montreal, said Indigenous women are targetted by police so often, when they are victims of crime they are reluctant to turn to police for help. (Kate McKenna/CBC)

Quijano said in many cases, police are only doing what they are trained to do: hand out fines for misdemeanours like drinking in public or sleeping on a park bench.

The end result, however, is vulnerable women are reluctant to come forward when they are the victims of a crime themselves.

"If they do go to police, it's very challenging," she said.

"It really depends on who you get, but some police officers are not exactly sensitive to a lot of the issues that the Indigenous people are living today."

The report on systemic discrimination comes a week after the findings of the Viens commission were made public.

Retired Superior Court justice Jacque Viens wrote that episodes of racism and discrimination detailed during the inquiry "put a spotlight on the deep feeling of mistrust that Indigenous peoples have towards police services."

The inquiry was launched following a Radio-Canada investigation into allegations of police misconduct against Indigenous women in Val-d'Or, Que.

Before taking over the SPVM last December, Caron served as the deputy director general of Quebec's provincial police force.

As a Sûreté du Québec officer with more than three decades' experience, Caron would, one would assume, be aware of that report, the incidents that prompted it, and the long line of complaints against police and the attempts to address allegations of discrimination over the years.

'Irony' in report's release

If there was any doubt about the findings, an incident during the release of the report itself helped drive the point home.

Montreal police officers prevented Abedlhaq Sari, an opposition city councillor and vice-chair of the committee that oversees police, from attending the announcement.

"I don't know the reasons, and I don't understand exactly what happened," he told reporters.

Abedlhaq Sari, an opposition city councillor, was barred by police from attending the news conference where the report on systemic discrimination by police was made public. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

Ensemble Montréal later issued a statement, calling it "ironic" and symptomatic of the kind of discrimination documented in the report.

For her part, Plante said the findings were "a very positive thing — yes, troubling; yes, shocking. But I'm dedicated to moving forward."

"We can see that there is clearly a fundamental problem that leads to systemic discrimination," she said.

Plante said it will be a priority to ensure Montrealers have trust in their police force.

Premier François Legault, too, said the findings are "troubling" — although just as he has in the past, the premier stopped short of recognizing any systemic issues within Quebec's public institutions.

"I have confidence in the chief of police of Montreal to make the changes that are necessary," Legault said, rejecting calls from the Black Coalition of Quebec to put the SPVM under trusteeship.

Will anything change?

Despite expressing surprise at what has been in plain sight for years, the SPVM chief has committed to improvements.

On Monday, Caron said he fully accepts the report and its conclusions.

The first order of business is to define when street checks are justified — a policy that he said is in the works and should be in effect by next March.


Benjamin Shingler is a senior writer based in Montreal, covering climate policy, health and social issues. He previously worked at The Canadian Press and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal.

With files from Jaela Bernstien and Cathy Senay