After being forced into it by public demand, the city of Montreal has launched months of hearings into systemic racism and discrimination.

Those running the hearings have high hopes, but understand that discrimination is deeply ingrained in many aspects of society and individual behaviours.

The hearings will look at the lack of diversity in city hiring: civil servants, police officers, and firefighters in Montreal are overwhelmingly white francophones, even though one-third of the city's population consists of immigrants, and Montreal also has a large percentage of anglophones.

They will also pay particular attention to how racism and discrimination plays out when members of minorities apply for jobs or interact with police officers.

Balarama Holness, who led the push to hold the hearings, said people need to know how Montreal police officers are protected by the system.

"When there is brutality to the point of death the city uses lawyers to protect police officers who have committed these egregious acts of violence," said Holness. "We've seen that the police ethics committee is not neutral."

He said that at the very least, the city of Montreal should provide data about arrests.

"We want to see more openness, more recognition that racial profiling does exist, concrete measures and disaggregate data to actually mitigate it. Currently the city of Montreal is not releasing the amount of visible minorities who are intercepted by the police, and that is creating a difficulty in understanding where are visible minorities being intercepted and to what degree," said Holness.


How to create trust

Participants in Wednesday's hearing called for more concrete action to protect the rights of minorities, and wanted the city of Montreal to create and fund a plan to educate the masses.

Others asked what good will it do to train police in racial sensitivity when children are already facing discrimination from people in positions of authority.

Nora Jones related the story of her son and the problems he faced while interacting with policemen, lifeguards, and librarians.

"Now my son, who is 12 years old, has had a hard time because he is black, so I'm going to say it and there's no more trust between him and anbody who works for the city and he's already 12," said Jones.

"What do you with kids where the confidence is already broken? What are the plans that the city has to bridge that confidence again?"

Fo Niemi of CRARR, the Centre for Research-Action on Race Relations, said anglophones must pay attention to the hearings as well, because there is a lack of anglophones among the civil service and on various boards and commissions.

The city of Montreal first rejected the idea of holding public hearings on the topic, but then a group called Montreal in Action presented a 20,000-signature petition forcing the issue last year.

Several nights of hearings will take place during the rest of May, focusing on culture, employment, and racial profiling.

Over the summer citizens are being asked to hold their own smaller meetings, and then submit opinions online in October.

More group hearings will take place in October and November, and a final report is due next year.