Calls to end racism after Quebec police kills Black man

Leslie Blot

Pierre Richard Thomas has lived in Repentigny, Que., for six years, and throughout that time, he has dreaded the day when a local police intervention would end with a Black man dying.

The Black man who was fatally shot by police was Jean René Junior Olivier, whose mother had called 911 to bring him to hospital because, she says, he was in psychological distress.

Thomas co-organized a two-hour sit-in last Wednesday at Repentigny’s city hall to commemorate Olivier. And like many in the crowd that evening — including Olivier’s family — he blamed racism in the Repentigny police force for the 37-year-old’s death.

“We’ve been asking for an investigation,” Thomas said. “It isn’t by chance that the police behave like that. We think we’ll find elements.”

Quebec’s police watchdog, Bureau des enquêtes indépendantes (BEI), is investigating the shooting. The Repentigny police say this is the first police-involved shooting in the force’s history.

But for many in Quebec’s Black communities, Olivier’s death is the latest example of what they say is systemic discrimination by police forces across the province. And they fear that despite repeated rulings by human rights bodies, no change seems imminent.

At a news conference the day after Olivier’s death, Repentigny police acknowledged that racial discrimination is pervasive in Quebec police forces and that there is a need to “rebuild bridges with the Black community.”

Since 2017, Quebec’s Human Rights Commission has received nine complaints about racial profiling by the Repentigny police force, Service de police de la Ville de Repentigny or SPVR.

In July, the commission found that Repentigny police had racially profiled Leslie Blot when officers handcuffed and ticketed him in 2017. Blot had been parked in his car blowing up balloons for his children.

His case is the fourth time the commission has ruled against the city. Repentigny has yet to compensate Blot, despite the findings.

“It shows that they’re not acting in good faith,” Thomas said. “With that kind of reaction, how do you expect people to trust you?”

Still, he said, it’s not too late for Repentigny police to rebuild trust with diverse communities — but it will take concrete change to mend the relationship.

Police priorities

Ted Rutland, a social geographer and an associate professor at Concordia University in Montreal who published a report assessing arrests made by Montreal’s anti-gun squad, said police need to improve the way they handle people in mental distress.

“If someone is having a mental health crisis, our objective should be not just to not kill them but actually to provide them the care that they need,” Rutland said.

When you combine race with mental distress and then toss in a police response that is based on bias, he said, the consequences can be deadly.

But Quebec seems focused on beefing up funding to police forces to target arms trafficking and organized crime, committing $65 million last year.

In June of this year, the province announced that the Montreal police service alone would receive $5 million over two years to seize illegal firearms.

A deadly shooting like the one killing three people in Rivière-des-Prairies this week, Rutland said, gives politicians an opportunity to focus on guns and boosting police funding.

It’s an approach that has failed in the past, he said, and “that should tell us that more policing isn’t going to help.”

Human rights lawyer Pearl Eliadis says trust is eroded when police forces are not held accountable for their actions. (McGill University)

“The police and the city are very well equipped to defend themselves” against individuals who are Black, poor or from disadvantaged minorities, Eliadis said.

“Then you have the criminal law system, which the police know very well, so minorities are at a systemic disadvantage throughout the entire process.”

As it stands, Quebec is playing catch-up with North American cities that are already considering reshaping their police systems.

Toronto’s city council unanimously approved a pilot project in April to establish crisis response teams that don’t include armed police.

Cities such as Eugene, Ore., and Seattle are also exploring crisis intervention services while re-envisioning policing after a report found that nearly half of 911 calls don’t require armed responders.