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Black Montreal firefighters allege racism in the workplace

By News Staff, Posted October 31, 2023 11:16 am,  Last Updated October 31, 2023 1:58 pm.

Two Black employees of the Montreal fire department (SIM) are alleging racism in the workplace.
Alberto Syllion and Jean-Alain Cameau say they have been firefighters with the SIM for more than 10 years, and allege racism and systemic discrimination in their workplace since the beginning of their career.
The Red Coalition, an advocacy organization fighting racism, held a press conference to share their stories on Tuesday morning. They say they have filed a complaint with the Commission des droits de la personne et de la jeunesse (CDPDJ) on behalf of Syllion and Cameau and are considering other legal action.
The coalition wants the fire department to pay each of the men $40,000 in damages.
“No one is immune to the effects of racism and discrimination, not even those that are risking their lives to protect us day in and day out,” said Joel DeBellefeuille, the founder and executive director of Red Coalition.
“Some of the comments these brave victims were subjected to are absolutely appalling and disgusting to say the least.”
Syllion says he endured racist insults at work and saw other Black employees experience the same.
“I’ve given everything to this organization. I feel guilty for having encouraged and mentored a young Black man to pursue a career at SIM, only for him to suffer the same racism I did 15 years ago,” said Alberto Syllion in a press release issued by the Red Coalition.
Jean-Alain Cameau, who is Black and Muslim, says he was also subjected to racist comments.
“My first day in the barracks, a guy comes up to me and called me (the N-word.) During my initiation as a recruit, even though I told them I didn’t eat pork because I was Muslim, I was told, ‘you’re going to eat pork here, my (expletive),’” said Cameau in the same press release.
Red Coalition says the firefighters made the decision not to address the media directly Tuesday.
“They’re afraid of repercussion and retribution on the part of the City of Montreal if they dare talk about the racism and discrimination that they’ve been enduring, witnessing for over a decade,” said Alain Babineau, the director of racial profiling and public safety at Red Coalition.

‘Subjected to daily racism and discrimination’
Retired Montreal firefighter David Shelton, a founding member of the Alliance des Pompier(iere.s) du Canada, called the comments “disappointing” but “not surprising.”
“I’ve experienced things very similar to that, if not identical. And that’s been going back my entire career, which started in the ’80s, over 30 years ago,” said Shelton, who served as battalion chief and diversity officer with the Montreal fire department.
Joel DeBellefeuille, the founder and executive director of Red Coalition, says the list of racial insults is long.
“Some of them are just making jokes,” he said. “Supervisor coming in and noticing that there was a Black fireman and then out loud made a joke about, you know, ‘what is he doing here?’ There was a shooting, I think it was in Montreal North, and the firefighters were called to the scene as well as the police. And then there was a comment made, you know, ‘was this one of your friends that got shot?’
“Trained professionals that are to be entrusted by the public to do the right thing. However, are quick to degrade, belittle and torment the very same people they are standing beside. The fact that the SIM has a count of 2,400 firemen and women in the city of Montreal and approximately 30 are Black is a major cause for concern. And the obvious reason is these men are subjected to daily racism and discrimination.”
Calls for creation of independent body
The Red Coalition is calling for the creation of an independent body to carry out an investigation into systemic racism within the City of Montreal. The anti-racism group says the city, in response, has given responsibility to the Public Service Commission to investigate instead. Red Coalition says it does not trust that system.
The official opposition party at Montreal City Hall has also called for an independent investigation into alleged racism within the City of Montreal.
“Allegations of racism are piling up within the City of Montreal. At a time when we advocate inclusion and diversity, this is unacceptable and all the more disturbing given that one of the alleged victims is the face of the Fire Department’s recruitment of cultural communities. The city needs to review its corporate culture and institute a genuine zero-tolerance policy,” said Aref Salem, the leader of opposition party Ensemble Montreal, in an email sent to CityNews.
In a statement sent by email, Gonzalo Nunez of the City of Montreal’s media relations team said:
“On October 15, 2023, the management of the Service de sécurité incendie de Montréal (SIM) was informed of allegations relating to a racially motivated incident involving a SIM employee on October 14. The alleged events took place in a SIM fire station. On Monday, October 16, 2023, it was decided to temporarily relieve the employee involved in the allegations from his duties for purposes of investigation.
“The investigation has been completed and the employee who made the alleged comments has been disciplined. In addition, a member of SIM management has met with fire station personnel, as well as some of the parties concerned by this situation, to reiterate that any form of racism and discrimination is unacceptable and that there is zero tolerance within City units.
“At the City of Montreal, as at SIM, there is zero tolerance for racism and all forms of discrimination. A number of measures have been deployed over the past year and are continuing in the interests of prevention and awareness. Communications reflecting the organization’s values and expectations in this area have been sent to staff.”
The statement also says the City of Montreal is continuing work to overhaul the complains process and a guichet unique should be set up in the near future.



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