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Hindsight 2020: Outrage over systemic racism became undeniable

Still, Premier François Legault continued to deny its existence in Quebec.
Author of the article: Marian Scott  •  Montreal Gazette Publishing


From worldwide protest over the killing of George Floyd to a scathing report on racism and discrimination at the city of Montreal, 2020 marked a long overdue awakening on systemic racism.
But that awakening had its limits, as demonstrated by Premier François Legault’s continuing refusal to acknowledge systemic racism, or in fact even say the words.
Here are some of the defining events in a year when issues of racism and discrimination moved to centre stage:
Wave of protest
May 31 — Thousands of Montrealers protested against police violence and racism, six days after Floyd died of cardiac arrest as Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for nine and a half minutes. The demonstration was the first of many calling for an end to racial profiling and defunding of police.
At a press conference in Montreal the next day, Legault called Floyd’s death “shocking” and “revolting” but denied the existence of systemic racism in Quebec. Quebecers who practise discrimination are “a very, very small minority,” he said.
Two weeks later, Legault set up a working group on racism and discrimination headed by junior health minister Lionel Carmant and International Affairs Minister Nadine Girault. It unveiled an action plan calling for 25 measures on Dec. 15. They included ending random police checks, launching a province-wide awareness campaign, adding instruction on racism and discrimination to school curriculums and appointing a minister responsible for fighting racism.
Scathing report
June 15 — The Office de consultation publique de Montréal (OCPM) released a 252-page report accusing the city of turning a blind eye to systemic racism and discrimination. It called for 38 corrective measures, starting with the hiring of a commissioner on racism and discrimination, tasked with creating and implementing an anti-racism action plan within one year.
“These recommendations are accurate, succinct and powerful,” said Balarama Holness, the moving spirit behind a 22,000-signature petition in 2018 that forced the OCPM to hold the consultations.
Mayor Valérie Plante appointed former city council speaker Cathy Wong to the executive committee, where she is responsible for the fight against racism and discrimination, as well as protection of the French language.
A search for an anti-racism commissioner is underway.

Driving While Black
July 5 — Hundreds of drivers participated in a convoy across Montreal to denounce “driving while Black” cases, in which police stop Black drivers without justification.
In a landmark decision on Nov. 17, the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal ordered the city of Longueuil and a police officer to pay Joël DeBellefeuille $12,000 in moral and punitive damages, plus interest, for having been tailed and asked for his ID when driving his son to daycare in his BMW in 2012. Fo Niemi, executive director of the Centre for Research-Action on Race Relations (CRARR), hailed the decision as “precedent-setting.”
Police street checks
July 8 — Montreal police unveiled a long-awaited policy on street checks. The decision to stop someone “must be based on observable facts and without discriminatory grounds,” said Police Chief Sylvain Caron.
However, the policy does not cover police actions involving drivers, because road infractions are a provincial responsibility, Caron said. Critics slammed the omission, noting that cases of “driving while black” account for three-quarters of racial profiling complaints.
N-word controversy
Oct. 20 — Legault joined a chorus of Quebec media personalities who denounced the University of Ottawa for suspending a lecturer who used the N-word in class.
Part-time University of Ottawa teacher Verushka Lieutenant-Duval used it to illustrate how certain communities had reclaimed derogatory terms.
Legault said Lieutenant-Duval “didn’t insult anybody” and that universities should be places for freedom of expression.
But young Black people said they were being excluded from the debate.
“What has made me very uncomfortable is this debate is being led in the media mostly by non-Black people, when the main people that are affected by this word, the people who still hold on to the oppressive origins of this word, are Black people,” said Tihitina Semahu, 22, a co-host of the podcast Woke or Whateva. “This word reminds us of oppression.”
Another police shooting
Oct. 29 — Quebec’s police watchdog was called in after Montreal police fatally shot Sheffield Matthews, a 41-year-old Black man, in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce.
The officers told investigators that Matthews had lunged at them with a knife.
Borough mayor Sue Montgomery said the police intervention was a reminder of the district’s “sad and tragic” history of police violence against Black men and called for an end to the “senseless killing of people of colour.” (In 1987, police shot unarmed Anthony Griffin, 19, in N.D.G. In 2018, officers fatally shot Nicholas Gibbs, 23.)
The Montreal Police Brotherhood blasted Montgomery’s remarks as “totally irresponsible.”
Teacher fired
Nov. 26 — The Pointe-de-l’Île school service centre fired a teacher at Henri-Bourassa High School after an investigation into allegations he had repeatedly used racist language in front of students.
It came after a student at the multicultural high school posted videos of teacher Vincent Ouellette repeatedly using the N-word while teaching online.
While welcoming Ouellette’s dismissal, students at the school said his case was not unique, and called for anti-racism training for student teachers.

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