In Repentigny, a suburban community east of Montreal, it’s rare to see a person of colour in a police uniform. In fact, there are only two.
Pierre Richard Thomas, a local advocate, said Black residents often feel like they aren’t treated equally.
“For an adult or a young teen, seeing a police officer is worrying. It’s frustrating,” said Thomas, a spokesperson for Lakay Média, a Haitian community organization.
The situation in Repentigny is among the most extreme examples of the gap in representation between Quebec police and the general population, an analysis by CBC News shows.
Only two per cent of the police service in Repentigny identifies as a visible minority, and none as Indigenous, compared with 12 per cent of the general population.
CBC requested the latest figures on staffing from 12 police services across the province and compared them to the latest census data from 2016 for the areas they serve.
Suburbs becoming more diverse
The results show police officers across the province remain overwhelmingly white, even as visible minorities (the term used by Statistics Canada and police to describe people of colour) account for a growing percentage of those living in Montreal and municipalities farther afield.
The fast-expanding suburbs outside the city, in particular, are becoming more racially diverse.
But the police services remain mostly white, even though recruiting officers from a wider variety of backgrounds is a stated goal of the provincial government.
The chart below illustrates the divide between police services and the populations they serve, with the RCMP’s Quebec division coming closest to being representative of the population.
The issue of racial inequity in policing was thrust to the forefront again this week, after a video captured Quebec City police officers dragging, hitting and pinning down Black youths in the snow.
Five officers were suspended in connection with the incident. The Quebec City police service, which has come under scrutiny in the past for a lack of diversity and allegations of racial profiling, is investigating.
Quebec City police did not provide up-to-date statistics this week, but as of June 2020, it had no Black officers out of a total of 853. According to the most recent census figures, there were more than 12,300 Black residents in Quebec City, accounting for 2.4 per cent of the city’s population.
Findings from CBC’s analysis include:
- Thérèse-De Blainville and Deux-Montagnes have only one officer each who identify as visible minorities.
- Châteauguay has the most representation of visible minorities and Indigenous people of any of the 12 police services.
- Laval and Montreal have the widest discrepancy between their populations and police services.
- There has been little change since CBC’s last analysis of police data in 2016, although the number of visible minorities in Montreal police is up by two percentage points.
Troubling, but not surprising, expert says
Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, an expert in policing and an assistant professor in sociology at the University of Toronto, reviewed the data.
He said the findings are troubling but not surprising — given similar gaps in representation have been documented across Canada.
Research has found that a greater diversity in police departments improves trust in those institutions.
But there’s also no clear indication it leads to more equitable policing.
“I don’t think that the diversification of police agencies is necessarily a panacea to dealing with all of the issues of racial and other forms of bias that we have. But I do think that representation is important,” said Owusu-Bempah, an adviser on anti-Black racism to the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.
“It’s something that we should be striving for.”
Improved oversight of police and better training are also crucial, said Rashawn Ray, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a sociology professor at the University of Maryland.
“Training is important, but it’s not simply about more training. It’s about a qualitatively different type of training,” said Ray, who oversees a program that uses virtual reality simulations of real-life scenarios to improve equity in policing.
He added, though, that the mere optics of more people of colour in uniform can build a stronger relationship with the communities police serve.
Hiring a challenge, police say
Repentigny typifies the struggles seen in smaller municipalities outside Montreal. A report released by academic researchers in September found Black residents were 2.5 to three times more likely to be stopped by local police than their white counterparts.
In the wake of those findings and the shooting death of a Black man last August, the Repentigny police service announced a five-year plan that includes a commitment to “inclusive” hiring practices.
But the police service said it will take time to make changes, given they rarely have full-time jobs available and don’t offer the potential for career advancement as a job in a bigger city.
“As a smaller police service with limited possibilities of advancement, hiring in itself is a challenge for us,” said Éric Racette, assistant director of the police service.
“This being said, we acknowledge that we must do better to increase those numbers.”
Quebec police services have tried to address the problem with programs aimed at encouraging people of colour and Indigenous people to become officers.
The Montreal police and the Quebec provincial police are among those taking part in a fast-track program through the provincial police academy in Nicolet aimed at bringing in a more diverse range of hires, including women.
In separate statements, both police services said they were committed to improving the diversity of their ranks.
Nine per cent of Montreal police identify as visible minorities, compared with 33 per cent of the city’s general population. The provincial police are nearly entirely white, with only three per cent identifying as visible minorities.
A spokesperson for Montreal police said the service is “increasing its resources and efforts to interest young people in police careers, particularly those from ethnocultural and Indigenous communities” in order to “be like the population it serves.”
Montreal police launched a recruitment campaign last May urging Montrealers, including women and people of colour, to “become an agent of change.”
Change in approach needed, advocate says
If police want to improve trust and help citizens feel less fearful, they’ll have to change the way they operate, said Margaret Wilheim, an anti-racism advocate in Châteauguay, on Montreal’s South Shore.
Wilheim recently helped a Black community consultation group look at systemic racism in Châteauguay. The consultation group heard about instances of racial profiling, allegations of excessive service and increased scrutiny during traffic stops.
While Wilheim is encouraged that Châteauguay has a higher percentage of Indigenous people and people of colour than other municipal police services, she said better representation isn’t enough on its own.
“Then you have to look at retention and better policing practices so people don’t feel like they are being questioned arbitrarily,” she said.
Although police services often lament the difficulty in attracting people of colour, Wilheim said they need to be proactive and remove barriers to inclusion.
“It’s easy to say we have the problem, but maybe [they] should look at some of [their] practices, hiring retention, training programs,” said Wilheim.
In Repentigny, hiring more Black officers needs to be paired with real change from the public administration on down so the Black community feels like it’s being treated fairly, said Thomas.
“It has to come from above,” said Thomas, who is looking for a clear signal from the newly elected mayor and counsellors that it is committed to rebuilding trust between the Black community and the police.
“We need a new approach,” he said. “This is 2021 and society is changing. Everything is changing. We can’t stay stuck in the policing of the 1950s.”
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.