MONTREAL - If Montreal's police cannot acknowledge racism within the force, then unfounded street checks on people of colour will continue, citizens told the city's public security committee in impassioned testimony Friday.

One by one, Montreal residents took the microphone and told city officials that police routinely racially profile citizens of colour.

"I hope today you don't leave here without knowing that there is anger out there. I am furious with you," Anastasia Marcelin said in remarks directed at the police. "I am furious for my community. I am furious because you are mistreating us. We have rights in Quebec. We worked to build Quebec .... Do you work properly, and stop persecuting us."

In response to her and the many others who spoke at the public hearings, Montreal police deputy director Marc Charbonneau would only say the department recognizes there is "systemic bias" in the force.

The emotional pleas followed the recent release of a city-commissioned report by university researchers, which indicated black, Arab and Indigenous people were stopped by Montreal police significantly more often than white people.

Black and Indigenous Montrealers were between four and five times more likely to be subjected to street checks than were white people, the report revealed, while people of Arab descent were twice as likely to be stopped. Researchers wrote that while the situation couldn't conclusively be described as racial profiling, "systemic bias" linked to race was present in police interventions.

Balarama Holness, a McGill University law student, said police need to accept that racism exists within the force.

Racist officers within the department must be identified and punished, he said, and the police chief must immediately give orders to lower-level officers to stop routine street checks.

"Everyone has internal, subconscious biases," Holness said in an interview outside the council meeting room. "When you intersect, in your mind, criminality with skin colour or social position, you are racist."

Police spokesman Andre Durocher spoke to reporters after the meeting and said Charbonneau and other officers use the term "systemic bias" because that was the term used by the researchers in the report. Asked whether police engage in racial profiling, he replied, "No."

Durocher said more study is needed. "We need a study and more information to say what's behind those numbers," he said.

Alain Babineau, formerly with the RCMP and now with the Center for Research-Action on Race Relations, said in an interview it's a concern for him that the police don't acknowledge racial profiling. "Before you can tackle a problem, you need to recognize it exists," he said.

The report published last month analysed internal police data from 2014 to 2017. It concluded that even when controlling for the percentage of crime committed statistically by various ethnic groups, minorities were still targeted significantly more than white people. Indigenous women, for instance, were stopped 11 times more than white women during the period studied.

Montreal city council unanimously adopted a motion Monday night calling on the police to "immediately stop unfounded street checks. " The motion, which is not binding because the city's police force answers to the provincial Public Security Department, also asks the provincial government to adopt legislation regulating police stops across Quebec.

Charbonneau said Montreal police have committed to developing a clear policy on street checks by next March. He said the policy will be the first of its kind in the province.

Babineau said it's a "pipe dream" if they think they can come up with a comprehensive policy in a few months, when it took authorities in Ontario four years for the same exercise. New rules governing how police in Ontario conduct street checks, also known as "carding," went into effect Jan. 1, 2017.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 22, 2019.

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