Social work student and former president of the McGill African Students’ Society (MASS) Jean Kagame is facing charges of stunt driving after the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) stopped him on his way to Toronto on Nov. 21. During the interaction, one of the officers repeatedly yelled and swore at the group, and Kagame’s car began to be towed while he and his friend were still inside it. According to Kagame, another police officer came over to apologize for his colleague’s behaviour. The incident, which has circulated widely on Facebook, illustrates the reality that many McGill students are vulnerable to racialized police harassment. For many people of colour in Montreal and beyond, racial profiling is inevitable, and McGill must stand in solidarity with Kagame and other marginalized students on and off-campus.
The harassment that Kagame faced follows countless reports of racial profiling and police brutality in Montreal. Joel Debellefeuille, a black resident of Longueuil, is a repeated victim of police racial profiling while driving his BMW: He has been pulled over by Montreal police three times since 2009, and Quebec’s Human Rights Commission found each event unjustified. In 2017, after responding to a report that Pierre Coriolan was shouting and breaking things in his apartment, a Service de police de la Ville de Montréal (SPVM) officer shot and killed him. In Aug. 2018, Nicholas Gibbs was shot by police responding to a call about a fight in Montreal’s Notre-Dame-de-Grâce neighbourhood (NDG). Cellphone footage of the situation shows no visible attempts by police to de-escalate the situation. Even Montreal’s annual march against police brutality led to injuries and at least three arrests this year.
The McGill community has rallied in support of Kagame; his initial Facebook post has almost 400 shares as of press time, and the Student’s Society of McGill University (SSMU), the Black Students’ Network (BSN), and the McGill Social Work Students Association (SWSA) have all released statements in support of Kagame. Kagame is currently set to appear in court on Dec. 13, and is working with the Center for Research-Action on Race Relations (CRARR) to file a complaint against the officer. These groups are also supporting his legal efforts by running a GoFundMe campaign to help Kagame finance his defence. Most incidents of racial profiling go unnoticed or without institutional support, and it is commendable that the McGill community mobilized so quickly.
Students, associations, and other campus groups should sustain this momentum and support for Kagame. SSMU’s Know Your Rights campaign and other legal information services on campus should consider increasing their focus on educating students of colour about their rights when interacting with police—The McGill Daily published a “What To Do if You’re Arrested” guide in their joint issue on police brutality with Le Délit. Moreover, student organizations should avoid having police presence at their events; if police presence is for whatever reason unavoidable, such as at a protest, organizations have a responsibility to notify potential attendees in advance to make events as accessible as possible to people of colour.
Students, especially white students, have a responsibility to acknowledge their own privilege and use it for positive change. There is immense power in being an active bystander: Students should call out police when they witness violence against a person of colour. Police brutality is a community problem, and allies have a responsibility to create safe spaces for people of colour to speak about their experiences. Working toward a better future for people of colour is a responsibility that all of us share, no matter our identity.