Charges of Racism Tarnish Montreal Police Force
MONTREAL'S black community is outraged at a series of shootings and beatings by Montreal's police force. It has raised the specter of racism in a society that has long thought of itself - and portrayed itself to the outside world - as tolerant.Tension has grown since the most serious incident, which involved the shooting July 3 of an unarmed 24-year-old black man, Marcelus Francois, after a Montreal police SWAT team mistook him for an armed fugitive. Following the wrong car while on the hunt for another black man charged with attempted murder, police stopped it and shot the innocent Francois. Francois had no criminal record and apparently his only physical resemblance to the wanted men was that he was black. He died July 17. Further outrage boiled over last week when Quebec's Justice Minister said no criminal charges would be filed against the officer who shot Francois. The Minister's report said the fatal shot did not "constitute criminal negligence." The Francois case adds to a backdrop of growing concern over police treatment of blacks. Four years ago police shot another unarmed black man in the back as he reportedly tried to escape. Just two weeks ago, police in riot gear wielding truncheons raided a nightclub with a black clientele. Televised scenes showed eight helmeted policemen beating one struggling black man on the sidewalk. Police said they had been threatened, prior to battling the crowd. On July 18, Montreal police are alleged to have broken the arm of a young black woman while trying to handcuff her. She was not charged and has since filed a complaint against the police. "The Montreal police are racist and it goes beyond these acts of violence," says Dan Philip, president of the Black Coalition of Quebec, one of Quebec's largest black lobbying groups. "Black people are faced with derogatory language ... told to go back to Africa, and all that other racist garbage." About 150,000 blacks live in Montreal, a metropolitan area of almost 3 million. Most blacks in Montreal and Canada are relatively recent arrivals, though Canada through most of its history has had a small black community. The majority of blacks in Quebec live in Montreal. "The incidents involving black people and the police are far in excess of their numbers in the population at large," says Mr. Philip. "The number of violent incidents prove there is a form of institutionalized racism being practiced." As with just about everything in French-speaking Quebec, there is a language element to the racial makeup: More than half of Montreal's blacks are French-speaking, almost all of them from Haiti; the rest are English-speaking, mainly from the Caribbean. Quebec is 83 percent French speaking. There is even an expression here for racial and linguistic purity, it is called 'Pure Laine' the rough translation of which is 'Pure Wool,' but it refers to a Quebecker who can trace his ancestry back to French colonial times. "If you are not 'Pure Laine,' you are outside the rim of their political thinking," Philip says. Still, both English and French-speaking Canadians have long taken a strong anti-racist stance. It was Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker who forced the expulsion of South Africa from the British Commonwealth in the early 1960s because of its apartheid policy. Later, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau encouraged the immigration of blacks from the Caribbean in the 1970s and appointed the first black Canadian senator. Yet Canada - especially urban Canada - remained a white world until a wave of immigration in the 1970s. Some black leaders in Quebec intimate that French-speaking Quebeckers view blacks as intruding into their closed society. It is an attitude, they say, that fosters racism in society, and is mirrored by the police. The province's minister of public security, Claude Ryan, recently told police to think twice before pulling guns from their holsters or brandishing nightsticks. "I want to invite them [the police] to demonstrate great restraint in the use of their firearms and other instruments," Mr. Ryan said, though denying that the law enforcement system is biased. "Whites are also dissatisfied with the way they are treated by police." Still, Montreal's black community remains angry there is to be no public inquiry into Marcelus Francois's shooting. "We can't do anything to convince people to believe in the system because there is no justice," says Noel Alexander, one of Montreal's leading black activists.