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In Quebec, small steps to change the face of policing

Growing up in Montreal, Tyrel Phillips dreamed of becoming a police officer. He was drawn to the uniform and the sirens and lights on the patrol cars as they sped by.

As he got older, the idea of giving back and helping people felt like a perfect fit for his outgoing personality. It also helped that he had a mentor. Phillips’s cousin is an RCMP officer in New Brunswick and encouraged him to pursue policing as a career.

As a Black man, Phillips also hopes he can be a role model. 

“A lot of young kids nowadays, they’re like, ‘Aww, the police, it’s not my cup of tea,’ but that’s the problem,” said Phillips, 21, a student in the police technology program at John Abbott College in Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, Que.

Phillips is part of a growing effort to recruit more women, people of colour and Indigenous people into the ranks of police.

But an analysis by CBC News shows there is a lot of work to be done. CBC examined the makeup of 12 police forces in Quebec, including the police in Montreal, Longueuil and Laval.

All had a level of diversity lower than the general population in the communities they serve, a finding consistent with the gaps in representation documented across Canada.

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Police officers in Quebec are required to complete their training at the provincial police academy in Nicolet, Que. (Yoann Dénécé/Radio-Canada)

Phillips, who is in his final year of schooling, believes it is crucial for people to see themselves reflected among those in uniform. 

“One, it can make it way easier for interventions and two, just putting a different image,” said Phillips.

In certain cases, he believes having an officer from the same background or culture could completely change a tense dynamic or intervention.

“You know, you understand the person a bit more,” he said.

Slow but steady increase

Quebec police forces have tried to address the problem of representation with programs aimed at encouraging more women, people of colour and Indigenous people to become officers.

Those who meet the criteria can get hired by participating police departments after taking a 30-week fast-track course in police techniques at one of three French-language colleges, followed by a 15-week stint at the provincial police academy in Nicolet.

Nicolet has expanded enrolment in the fast-track program this year — to 90 students, compared with 30 three years ago — in an attempt to bring in a more diverse pool of students.

“We are sensitive to that situation. I think the Quebec population is just really asking for more diversity and more representation [among] the police officers,” said Véronique Brunet, a spokesperson for Nicolet.

But after a video captured officers in Quebec City dragging, hitting and pinning down Black youths in the snow, the province has faced renewed questions about how it aims to rectify the lack of diversity among police ranks.

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Quebec Public Security Minister Geneviève Guilbault said municipal police services face challenges in recruiting officers from different backgrounds, especially outside Montreal. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

On Wednesday, Public Security Minister Geneviève Guilbault said the province is working to do more, but that it can be difficult to recruit, especially outside Montreal.

“But it’s not for a lack of trying.” 

Last year, Guilbault announced scholarships worth $30,000 each to try to entice more Indigenous students into policing. Six students will graduate later this month, she said.

At John Abbott, the lone English institution in Quebec offering training for future officers, roughly nine per cent of the 240 students are people of colour.

Scott Darragh, the head of the program and a retired member of Montreal police, said he’s conscious of the problem and wants to do better.

“If you want the population to feel comfortable with you, we have to look like them, too, we have to reflect them,” said Darragh, who wrote his master’s thesis on the importance of diversity in policing.

“When you see a police car driving by in your neighbourhood, you want to look at the police car and be able to identify with the person that’s in it. We should be role models.”

But recruiting from diverse communities is challenging, especially if they don’t see role models who look like them in the police force, he said. 

Breaking down barriers

The discrepancy between the makeup of police and the general population is particularly acute in the municipalities outside Montreal, such as the suburb of Longueuil.

In Longueuil, 20 per cent of residents identify as visible minorities, according to the latest census, compared with about four per cent of its officers.

Fady Dagher, the Longueuil police chief, said hiring more officers of colour is a priority, but it won’t happen quickly. 

In the meantime, Dagher, who was born and raised in Ivory Coast but is of Lebanese descent, said he is trying to help his existing staff better understand the communities they serve.

Two years ago, he started an immersion project where officers are taken off patrol and immersed in a different community for five weeks, without their uniform or gun.

“We send them into the community — cultural community, autism families, mental health issues, homeless people — and they go into the community and they stay with them for five weeks.”

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Fady Dagher, who became the first immigrant to head a Quebec police service when he was named Longueuil’s new police chief in 2017, is trying to change the face of policing in the Montreal suburb. (Charles Contant/CBC)

So far, 90 officers have completed the program and another 60 will do it next year. During the next five years, Dagher said all of his patrol officers will complete the training, which has to be repeated every five years. 

The program has also changed people’s perceptions of the police, which could help in recruiting down the road.

Prior to his appointment in Longueuil in 2017, Dagher worked for 25 years with Montreal police. He said his superiors saw his background as an asset and used it to build trust in communities such as Saint-Laurent, a city borough with a large Lebanese population.

“In that neighbourhood, I was God,” said Dagher, who speaks Arabic, English and French as well as a bit of Spanish and Italian. “It really helped us for the police department to get engaged in the community. It was an advantage for me.”

Proud to do his part

Phillips, for his part, said he wants to change the way people view both policing and who can become a police officer.

“Having different ethnicities — Asian, Indian people, Black people, white people, changes the views, and it’s like, ‘OK, he has the same colour as me,'” he said. 

Although he’s happy to lead the charge, he hopes that diversity will become normalized in the future.

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. You can read more stories here.

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