2 Black Montreal firefighters file human rights complaint alleging years of racial abuse
Jacob Serebrin · The Canadian Press · Posted: Nov 01, 2023 12:15 PM EDT
Anti-racism group calling for action to change culture within fire department
Two Black Montreal firefighters say they've faced years of racist abuse from their colleagues, and they now believe it will take outside action to change the culture of the city's fire department.
On Tuesday, a Montreal anti-racism group said it has filed a complaint with Quebec's human rights commission on behalf of the two firefighters, seeking an external investigation of racism in the department — and $40,000 in damages for each of them.
Alain Babineau, the Red Coalition's director on issues of racial profiling and public safety, said Black firefighters shouldn't have to rely on luck to avoid on-the-job discrimination.
"You can't live hoping that you will end up on a respectful team, that should be a norm," he said, adding that racism complaints are often dismissed or minimized by managers.
The complaint also alleges that the fire department's union failed in its responsibility to protect its members against racism.
In documents filed with the Quebec Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse, the two firefighters lay out what they say is years of abuse from colleagues.
Racist jokes, threatening phone calls
Alberto Syllion, who joined the department in 2008, said he was the only Black person in his group of recruits and that he heard racist jokes and pejorative comments almost every day during his integration period.
One of the senior officers in charge of training told him he was "good Black" because he didn't get mad when racist jokes were made in front of him, he alleges.
On other occasions, Syllion said colleagues suggested he was a criminal because of his race.
One time, when responding to a medical call after a shooting, Syllion said his lieutenant and a police officer joked about him being known to police and said the lieutenant then asked him if the victim, also a Black man, was a friend of his.
"I found that insulting, dehumanizing and completely unprofessional," he wrote, adding that when he later told the lieutenant the comment was inappropriate, "he was angry and said it was a joke and that's what being a firefighter is about."
Syllion, who said he was the eighth Black person hired by the Montreal fire department since its 1863 founding, was tasked with increasing the department's diversity in 2011. That part-time role, however, put a target on his back, he wrote.
"I've received insults, threatening telephone calls, been accosted by [Montreal firefighters] while out on my own time in a restaurant or a bar telling me that I'm not welcome in certain fire stations."
While the insults toward him resulted in no action, he said he was disciplined for making discriminatory comments in uniform after joking with a police officer friend about racially profiling white people.
Syllion said he realized outside action was needed earlier this month, after a meeting during which senior officers failed to act against a lieutenant who had repeatedly used the N-word in front of a younger Black firefighter.
Syllion, who had encouraged the young man to join the department, said the lieutenant and the younger firefighter were assigned to the same truck after the meeting about the racist comments.
In an email, Montreal city spokesman Gonzalo Nunez said that an investigation was conducted and the firefighter who made the comments was temporarily suspended and then sanctioned, without providing details.
A senior fire department official then visited the station "in order to reiterate that all forms of racism and discrimination are unacceptable," Nunez wrote.
Use of the N-word
The other firefighter named in the human rights complaint, Jean-Alain Cameau, said in a document filed with the commission that he was called the N-word — coupled with an expletive — on his first day of work.
When colleagues learned that he didn't eat pork because he was Muslim, Cameau, who joined the department 13 years ago, said he faced further insults.
Babineau said his group is speaking on behalf of the two firefighters because they fear retaliation if they speak publicly about their experiences.
"They love being firefighters," Babineau said. "They just want to be treated with respect."
David Shelton says it's disappointing, but not surprising, that Black firefighters are still enduring what he went through 30 years ago when he joined the Montreal fire department.
"Most firefighters are fantastic people, but there are exceptional people who have racist feelings, who don't feel like Black people even belong in the fire service," he said.
Shelton, a former fire operations chief who retired last year, says during his time on the force, the N-word was used multiple times a day as part of everyday Quebec expressions.
"It's a dehumanizing word," Shelton said, adding that he couldn't report the issue to his supervisors as they were often the ones making racist remarks.
"And so it falls to us to either endure these dismissive comments or find a way to approach people one on one or develop a persona that navigates this better," he said.
Shelton says he wants more resources for Black firefighters to be able to report what they're going through, as well as more training for potential allies to be able to denounce racist and discriminatory remarks when they hear them.
Nunez wrote that the city has taken steps over the past year to prevent racism and other forms of discrimination and that it made major changes to the process for receiving discrimination complaints last June. That work continues, Nunez added.
However, Babineau said that the city agency tasked with receiving complaints is insufficiently independent and lacks teeth because it can only make recommendations.
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of.
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