Racial profiling by Montreal police 'widespread and systemic' in Saint-Michel, report says

The examples, compiled from interviews with 48 young people aged 15-28, range from small but pervasive daily inconveniences to brazen racism and violence.

Young people say they suffer harassment, threats, racial slurs and violence at hands of police

The research report, called "#MTLsansprofilage", was based on interviews with 48 young people aged 15-28. (MTLsansprofilage)

Young people from the racially diverse, low-income neighbourhood of Saint-Michel are subject to "widespread and systemic" racial profiling by Montreal police, according to a report released Tuesday.

The conclusions are based on interviews with 48 young people aged 15-28 who live in the north-end Montreal neighbourhood. 

"Findings from the interviews show that racial profiling is prevalent in Saint-Michel, occurring in a variety of spaces, including parks, streets, housing complexes, and public transportation," the report reads.

The examples compiled by the researchers range from small but pervasive daily inconveniences to brazen racism and violence.

One young man told of walking in his neighbourhood when an officer asked him to "move on."  He went home but returned to the street a few minutes later.

"Bam! He gave me a ticket for obstruction of justice. The ticket was $152," the man is recorded as saying in the report.

Another young man said he and friend were stopped by police on suspicion of having stolen a cellphone.

"We tried to leave and the policeman hit me with his baton. He called for reinforcements. They arrived with the girl who had her phone stolen and she told them it wasn't us. They just left us on the sidewalk and left," the man told the researchers.

There are dozens of stories in the report about police interventions gone wrong. 

Young people of colour told researchers officers would sometimes follow them, sometimes ask them what they were doing for no reason, sometimes pepper spray or hit them even if they were co-operating.

One young man said he had an encounter with a group of officers who made no attempt to hide their racism.

"They called me a dirty n****er. They told me to go back to my country. They called me a monkey, an orangutan," the young man said.

Montreal researcher Anne-Marie Livingstone, now a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard University, is one of the leaders of the research team. She said profiling creates enormous stress and anxiety for young people of colour. (CBC News)

Profiling 'enormous source of stress and anxiety'

The interviews were conducted by a group of young people from the neighbourhood hired by the research team.

Interviewer Rhita Harim said she was shocked by what she heard.

"I knew there was racial profiling, but violence, abuse, intimidation — I was not ready for all those personal stories," Harim told CBC at a news conference where the report was released Tuesday.

Anne-Marie Livingstone, a researcher from Montreal and now a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University, was one of the leaders of the research team.

She said police profiling has long-term effects on young people of colour.

"It's an enormous source of stress and anxiety. It makes them feel more insecure in the neighbourhood. They just want to be kids. They just want to be young people," Livingstone said. 

"The impact on their racial identities is profound and negative, and the impact on their mental health is underestimated," she added.

Report recommends police eliminate street gang squad

The report makes several recommendations to Montreal police about how to address the problem.

The most controversial, arguably, is for police to eliminate its squad dedicated to fighting street gangs.

Montreal officials have repeatedly faced calls to deal with systemic racism issues. This summer a dozen young people helped deliver to City Hall a petition with 20,000 signatures demanding public hearings on systemic racism and discrimination against visible minorities. (CBC)

"I think the whole discourse around gangs has been false," Livingstone said.

She said police tend to exaggerate the problem of gang violence generally, and particularly the role of young people of colour in gangs.

"It became racialized. The discourse became gangs are a problem of black youth, when that's not the case," Livingstone said.

She argued a better way to deal with it would be to transfer resources from police in Saint-Michel to community-based programs for young people and families.

The report also recommends Montreal police make race-based data publicly available.

Montreal police did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the report.

A spokesperson for the administration of Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante said the police service will release, next week, its long-awaited plan for dealing with racial and social profiling concerns. 

The spokesperson said the administration wants to see that plan before commenting further on Tuesday's study.


Steve Rukavina is a journalist with CBC Montreal.