Montreal

Visible minorities say we told you so, after report finds systemic bias by Montreal police

For the Montrealers who live in fear of the police, an independent report's findings of systemic discrimination is welcome, though frustratingly redundant, evidence of what they've been complaining about for years. 

Researchers determine people's skin colour affects likelihood of being stopped by SPVM

Montrealer Kenrick McCrae says he's afraid one day a police officer might be having a bad day and decide to take it out on him. (Jaela Bernstien/CBC)

For the Montrealers who live in fear of the police, an independent report's findings of systemic discrimination is welcome, though frustratingly redundant, evidence of what they've been complaining about for years.

Kenrick McCrae, who is black, said he laughed when he heard Montreal police Chief Sylvain Caron say he was "surprised" to learn visible minorities are more likely to be stopped by his officers than are white people in Montreal. 

"The issue is right there — right in front of their face," he said.

McCrae, who lives in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, has been stopped often by police for what he calls "bogus" reasons. In 2017, he said, he was pulled over by an officer who said the lights above his vehicle's licence plate weren't working. 

McCrae claims his lights were fully functional but has since added a third light above his plate, just to be extra-cautious. 

When we complain, it just goes through one ear and comes out the other.- Kenrick McCrae

"I live in fear every day, because one cop might be on the bad side one day, and something dangerous is going to go down."

The independent researchers who wrote the report said their results suggest the presence of systemic bias, although they said more research is needed to determine whether racial profiling is at play. 

Their analysis of street checks conducted by the Montreal police service (SPVM) between 2014 and 2017 found:

  • Indigenous women are 11 times more likely to be stopped by Montreal police than white women.
  • Indigenous people and black people are four to five times more likely to be stopped than white people.
  • Young Arabs between the ages of 15 and 24 are four times more likely to be stopped than whites of the same age.

McCrae said that's hardly surprising. 

"That's not news to me, because I live it every day," he said.

"But when we complain, it just goes through one ear and comes out the other."

On Wednesday, the head of Quebec's Human Rights Commission also reacted to the findings, saying he didn't find them surprising, either.

Philippe-André Tessier said the commission has been dealing with many cases of racial profiling across the province, not just in Montreal. 

Police brass: No need to throw blame

Montreal police Chief Sylvain Caron said he accepts, with humility, a report criticizing the disproportionate number of visible minorities stopped by Montreal police (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

When the report was released Monday, the SPVM chief said he fully accepts the report's conclusions, which he called "worrisome" and "surprising."  Caron commissioned the researchers to continue their work — this time, with a mandate to find out why skin colour affects how likely you are to be stopped by his officers.

Until that question is answered, police spokesperson André Durocher said "the worst mistake" would be to jump to conclusions and start throwing blame. 

"Every day our police officers are out there doing a good job, 99.9 percent of the time," he said. "Most of them are doing a good job, and that's what we have to keep in mind."

Durocher said protecting the city requires a delicate balance. 

"You have to make sure, of course, that all citizens can walk freely without fear of being intercepted for no reason," he said, but he also defended his colleagues.

"When police officers get up in the morning, they simply want to keep the city safe. Sometimes, they may do it in a way that can have certain biases that are caused by a system in place."

A call for 'universal respect'

Annie Ste-Croix, an Indigenous health outreach worker, said police officers need to learn to treat people with universal respect. (Jaela Bernstien/CBC)

If police want all citizens to feel safe, Annie Ste-Croix, an Indigenous health outreach worker in Montreal, has two words of advice: universal respect. 

She works mainly with people from Inuit communities who are homeless and spends a lot of time at Cabot Square, near the Atwater Metro station.

"You will be stopped for the colour of your skin," she said. 

Ste-Croix said she has seen improvements in the way police treat people. She said if officers approach people calmly, without attitude, things go more smoothly. 

Jennifer Qupanuaq May, an Inuk who lives in Montreal, said she trusts police in some ways, but she still has her doubts because of stories she's heard from others. 

You will be stopped for the colour of your skin.- Annie Ste-Croix, Indigenous health outreach worker

Qupanuaq May remembers an odd run-in she had with an officer in 2015. It was a winter day, and she had just pulled into a gas station. 

She said she saw a police car pass by, then back up and stop.

May said the officer asked her to wipe the snow off her licence plate so that she could run the plate through her system. She said after doing that, the officer drove off without another word.

May wonders if she was targeted because the officer spotted the dreamcatcher hanging in her car or noticed she was wearing sealskin mittens. 

"I felt targeted. Because so many people drive around with their plates kind of snowed in. In the morning, you run into your car, you don't think about your plates. I wasn't different than anyone on a snowy winter day," she said. 

May complained to police after the incident, but she said they disputed her version of events. 

Advocacy groups have agendas: SPVM

André Durocher, SPVM spokesperson, spoke to reporters after an independent report found systemic bias played a role in police stops. 'When police officers get up in the morning they simply want to keep the city safe. Sometimes, they may do it in a way that can have certain biases that are caused by a system in place,' he said. (Jaela Bernstien/CBC)

While the SPVM takes a closer look at its interactions with visible minorities, it's asking the public to be patient. 

"I know that some people would like for everything to be solved tomorrow morning. Sorry, it won't happen," spokesperson Durocher said.

When asked why the SPVM didn't react sooner to more than a decade's worth of racial-profiling complaints from civil rights advocates, the human rights commission and academic reports, this is what Durocher had to say: 

"We've always been listening ... but you have to understand also that advocacy groups, some of them maybe have sometimes agendas. And that's fine. But we want to go with something factual. The report is factual. We'll address it in a factual way. And the measures that we take are going to be based on facts and not opinions."

However, the independent report states that, in fact, this is far from the first time Montreal police have been questioned about racial profiling.

Before delving into their analysis, the authors provide a brief preamble outlining some of the research that's already been done on the topic.

The question of racial profiling in Montreal is far from being settled.- Report on police street checks in light of the racialized identities of the people targeted

"The problem was considered significant enough that Quebec's Human Rights Commission conducted public consultations in 2011 to better document the phenomenon of racial profiling and to find potential solutions," the authors state.

"Even within the SPVM, the 'racial profiling' carried out in Montreal North during the years leading up to the death of Freddy Villanueva, and the riots which followed, were pointed out as an explanation of citizens' anger towards police." 

While they fall short of concluding whether that is the root cause of the systemic bias they found, the researchers say they hope their work helps advance that discussion.

"We see that the question of racial profiling in Montreal is far from being settled," they say in their report.

About the Author

Jaela Bernstien is a reporter based in Montreal. She's covered a wide range of news topics, ranging from criminal trials to ice age caves, and everything in between.

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