Nine Black youths were given hefty fines recently for allegedly violating public-health rules while playing basketball in a Repentigny, Que., park, even though white teenagers playing later on the same court went unpunished by police.
The incident, which happened in May, has led to accusations of racial profiling and renewed calls for a broader discussion about racial justice in the fast-changing suburb located just off the northeastern tip of Montreal.
At a news conference Sunday in Repentigny, several of the Black youths who were fined spoke about their anger and confusion at feeling singled out by police.
"It's not about the money. It's about the discrimination," said Nathan Derry, 20, who received a $1,500 ticket for breaking a lockdown order that was in effect at the time.
Derry and eight others were stopped by Repentigny police as they left a basketball court in Parc de la Seigneurie on May 22.
Quebec's public-health rules related to the pandemic were in flux at the time. Non-contact sports were authorized a few days earlier and, that day, small outdoor gatherings were allowed.
But police nevertheless gave Derry and his friends fines totalling $11,500: two teens under the age of 18 were given tickets of $500 each, the rest were fined $1,500 each.
One of the Black youths who was fined returned to the park around 15 minutes later. He saw white teenagers playing basketball on the same court where his friends were earlier.
He also saw a Repentigny police cruiser approach the basketball players, and filmed the interaction. After the police left, the Black youth approached the white teenagers to see if they too had been fined.
The white teens told him they only received a warning.
"I was mad. We talk about equality and 30 minutes later there was not the same treatment," Derry said.
Police deny tickets were prompted by racial profiling
The Center for Research-Action on Race Relations, an anti-racism advocacy group, says it is ready to help the teens and young men file complaints with the police ethics board and the provincial human rights commission.
Repentigny police have been subject to repeated accusations of racial profiling in the past. "This has been an ongoing problem for at least the last 10 years," said Alain Babineau, a spokesperson for CRARR.
"There has to be a broader effort by the police service to address the systemic problem. This is not an isolated case."
The Repentigny police service says it has taken concrete steps to improve relations with the Black community, including launching pilot projects involving body microphones and dashboard cameras.
As for the incident in May on the basketball court, a senior official with the police service was adamant that it did not amount to racial profiling.
"The officers simply applied the rules that were related to COVID-19," said Lison Ostiguy, the deputy head of the strategy and prevention division.
Ostiguy said some of the youths who were ticketed had been repeatedly warned in the weeks earlier that they risked being fined if caught breaking the lockdown rules again.
She said that in the month of May, Repentigny fined 33 white people and nine Black people for public-health violations.
But she also acknowledged that police were responding to a call from a civilian about Black youths playing basketball.
'Repentigny is growing fast'
The Black community in Repentigny has grown rapidly in recent years. Community members and leaders say they have to confront racism regularly in the municipality of 87,000.
"Repentigny is growing fast," said Pierrson Vaval, a local resident and community organizer in neighbouring Rivière-des-Prairies.
"That's why it's important we put in place structures and programs that are going to help these kids and the community feel welcome in Repentigny, to feel that it's their home."
For the moment, though, that's often not the case for Repentigny's Black residents.
Shawn, a 16-year-old who was part of the group ticketed in May, said he feels constantly watched when walking the streets of Repentigny. In stores, he feels under suspicion the minute he walks in.
"We can't feel at peace in our neighborhood," he said.
His mother, Rose Alcide, said she moved from Montreal North, where she grew up, to escape the effects of systemic racism. But now she finds the situation worse in Repentigny.
"Everywhere [my children] go in Repentigny they're targeted because of their colour. And not only them, us adults too. Things have to change," Alcide said.
"I'm not going to move from Repentigny," she added. "It's not up to us to go away. It's for them to accept that society is changing."