Members of the Black community in Montreal’s West Island are upset about what they see as a failure by elected municipal officials to address anti-Black racism and problems within policing in light of the death of George Floyd.
The West Island Black Community Association (WIBCA) held a town hall meeting on Sunday where a handful of mayors were asked when they would make public statements about these issues.
There was a pause of 20 seconds before Pointe-Claire Mayor John Belvedere said he would issue a statement in the coming weeks, while Pierrefonds-Roxboro Mayor Jim Beis said he would issue one in July.
“I’m sure that everyone, that a lot of people in that room learned from that long pause,” Kemba Mitchell, head of the association, told Global News.
The association held the town hall to focus on the impacts of racism and police brutality in the wake of the killing of Floyd, a Black man who died at the hands of Minneapolis police in May. His last moments were captured on video as he pleaded for air while a police officer kneeled on his neck.
As Floyd’s death sparked protests in the U.S. and Canada, members of the Black community in the West Island have wondered why local mayors did not speak up when Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante tweeted a statement denouncing anti-Black racism on May 31. Plante also voiced support for protesters demanding change.
Quebec Premier François Legault, for his part, has denied that systemic racism exists, which has sparked frustration from residents. This week, he said he is committed to implementing a plan to stamp out racism in Quebec.
In the West Island, the silence from municipal officials has incensed Pierrefonds native Alexandre Vachon, who said he has experienced racism all his life in the area.
“They don’t seem to respond or comprehend or even appreciate the urgency of the situation,” he told Global News.
Vachon, who is Black, remembers an incident that happened when he was a student at John Abbott College in 2016. He said he and a Black friend went to a pharmacy in Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue with other friends.
“It was a mostly white group; we were the only two racialized people,” he explained.
According to Vachon, only he and his Black friend were stopped by an employee.
“He starts yelling at us, saying, ‘You have to keep your backpacks in the front,’ like with him at the counter,” he said.
That was just one of the numerous microaggressions Vachon said he has faced in the West Island. There was also an incident with a work colleague last year, he said.
“He pulled out an image of a gorilla, and he said ‘Oh, this is what Alex looks like’ to the whole group,” Vachon said.
Other residents have also expressed concern over the mayors’ silence.
“It was very concerning for me because it felt like it was a lack of acknowledgement,” said Mitchell.
Pierrefonds-Roxboro condemns racism
After the meeting, the borough mayor of Pierrefonds-Roxboro issued a statement on Monday recognizing the existence of systemic racism.
“When we first listened to the folks and then heard what they have to say, then and only then did we really realize what the impact is to the individual,” Beis said.
Beis explained that his borough is taking action and that he has contacted other West Island mayors to meet this week to discuss ways to fight racism. The borough council held a moment of silence to honour Floyd in early June, he added.
Beis also said he has been in touch with Mitchell and the WIBCA to hold regular meetings to address systemic racism.
The actions are encouraging, according to Mitchell. While she was thrilled to hear from Beis, she said it is a stepping stone.
“We’re happy to see that happened, but there is a lot more work to be done,” she said.
Global News also reached out to four other West Island municipalities for statements.
Pointe-Claire officials said they are still working on a statement, while Dorval authorities told Global News they are co-ordinating with the other mayors to make a public declaration. Kirkland Mayor Michel Gibson said he wants to first discuss the matter with his council.
The City of Beaconsfield said it, too, plans to make a statement in a few days. Global News did not hear back from Dollard-des-Ormeaux.
— With files from the Canadian Press