As It Happens

New guidelines for Montreal police street checks will accomplish little, activist says 

Promises by Montreal's police chief to conduct street checks in a less discriminatory manner are ringing hollow for community members who have been advocating for an end to the practice shown to disproportionately target people of colour.

Community members have been advocating for end to practice shown to unfairly target people of colour

Activist and law student Balarama Holness is calling for an end to street checks in Montreal. (Julie Marceau/Radio-Canada)


Promises by Montreal's police chief to conduct street checks in a less discriminatory manner are ringing hollow for community members who have been advocating for an end to the practice shown to disproportionately target people of colour.

Chief Sylvain Caron announced the new street check policy Wednesday to guide how the SVPM will stop and question people unrelated to a specific crime. Street checks often involve collecting identifying information, or carding.

Last year, a report commissioned by the city of Montreal found that Black and Indigenous people were four to five times more likely to be stopped by police than white people.

But Caron stopped short of banning the practice outright, despite calls from community organizations to do so.

Activist and law student Balarama Holness is one of the people who has been pushing for police reform in Montreal. He spoke to As It Happens guest host Nil Köksal. Here is part of their conversation.

Montreal's police chief said today street checks will now be based on observable facts and not, "discriminatory motives." Do these changes go far enough for you?

They're just conforming with existing law. It's unclear by that statement if they're admitting that previously those street checks were based on discrimination…. It is nothing new. 

Before this, there were no rules at all about when a police officer could stop someone in Montreal. Do you see some progress here at least? 

There were rules because, the Canadian charter establishes that you cannot arbitrarily detain someone or you cannot arbitrarily arrest someone.

But in terms of what Montreal police were adhering to, they didn't have a code of conduct for this in their guidelines.

Yes, but the Montreal police for many years have established that any form of racial profiling was against the policy, was against the Canadian constitution, was against the Quebec Constitution. And anti-discrimination policies were part of the SPVM framework. We community organizations have been through multiple commissions throughout the years stating this fact.

So for us, what we are looking for is sanctions that would be attributed to discriminatory behaviours, and possibly, people in management, giving them the tools to be able to identify police officers who are disproportionately targeting people of colour. That, we didn't see.

City opposition leader Lionel Perez critical of new street check policy

2 years ago
Duration 1:58
Perez, leader of Ensemble Montréal, said the SPVM's plan gives false hope and only re-enforces the status quo.

Let's go through some of the reasons the chief, Sylvain Caron, says that street checks will still be allowed. The first that they outlined is to help someone in need. 

That's an interesting component because there have been multiple killings [by police] in Montreal. And the [reason for police action] was because someone was in need, but it was someone under psychological duress. So Pierre Coriolan, for example — he was going through a psychosis and police came and he ended up being shot and killed.

So there are certain instances where we do not need police officers intercepting or carding people in need. Rather, you need a psychologist or a social worker. They're intervening in the wrong circumstances [and] that sometimes results in death.

Montreal Police Chief Sylvain Caron says the goal of the SPVM's newly unveiled policy is to maintain a climate of trust during police interactions. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

One of the other reasons the chief says that street checks should continue to go ahead, and will continue to go ahead, is to "collect information in line with a Montreal police mission." What do you make of that exception? 

Their mission is certainly to protect Montrealers or public security, but that's very vague. So I think that that's not ... a good reason to continue street checks.

I would remind people that Nova Scotia banned police street checks and carding because they found that it was not resulting in any additional catching [of] criminals or anything of the sort.

So when you have vague statements like that that say we're doing this to uphold, you know, our mission or our vision, that opens the door for arbitrary detention. And that's why people are unhappy with the report. 

So, have you been stopped? 

I was stopped when I was 18 years old; I was thrown in the back of a cop car for loitering. My friends and I were in the streets playing basketball and kind of being rowdy. And we were intimidated. A police officer put me in the back of his car. He let me go because I didn't commit any crime.

But there are multiple instances where especially young people of colour are intimidated by police officers. And Dr. Anne- Marie Livingstone, a fellow at Harvard University, did research [that found] police officers do intercept, card and intimidate especially young, vulnerable, people. And that is a continuing problem.

Written by Brandie Weikle. Interview produced by Chris Harbord. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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