The mayor of Saguenay, Que., says the city will hire a specialized, external firm to review the municipality's police hiring process after allegations of systemic racism surfaced in a Radio-Canada report this week.
"Inclusion has always been at the heart of my concerns," said Julie Dufour, mayor of Saguenay, which is located roughly 200 kilometres north of Quebec City and has a population of about 145,000 residents.
There are 238 local police officers in Saguenay, and only one is not white. Last spring, the police service was tasked with hiring 15 new officers, but only 10 were brought into the fold.
Qualified Indigenous and non-white applicants were rejected, Radio-Canada learned through an access to information request. Those applicants were soon hired by other police services in the province, Radio-Canada says.
Martin Harvey, head of Saguenay's human resources department, said a candidate's refusal had nothing to do with discrimination. He said it is a question of skills.
"When people don't meet the criteria we set, they aren't taken on. That's how it works," he said earlier this week.
But on Wednesday, the mayor said the hiring of a specialized firm will be on the executive committee's next meeting agenda in order to help the police service modernize and attract more officers from diverse backgrounds.
Biases are 'mostly unconscious'
It's hard to believe these rejected candidates, who have the proper credentials and experience, did not have the required skills to be a police officer in Saguenay, said civil and constitutional lawyer Rémi Bourget.
Rejecting such candidates appears to be systemic racism, Bourget said, but that doesn't mean everybody in the system is racist.
"The biases are mostly unconscious. It is very rare that we will consciously want to exclude minorities from certain positions in 2022. It is more insidious," said Bourget.
Saguenay has more than 7,000 Indigenous residents in the area, according to 2016 census data.
The mayor said the hiring process will be updated. That hiring process includes a polygraph test, a technology not even recognized in Canadian court, Radio-Canada says.
Bourget said the applicants were also subjected to a questionnaire that does not take into account diverse backgrounds and upbringings.
For example, candidates were asked whether they have been in contact with drug users or in the presence of drugs, or whether they have been in fights. Bourget said some people grew up in places where such things were a part of daily life.
'We can do better,' police chief says
Saguenay police Chief Denis Boucher said on Wednesday that police practices can be improved. He said the process will be reviewed, and he said the police service is aware that there is a lack of representation on the force.
"We can do better," said Boucher, noting there were 72 applicants in the spring and only four were Indigenous or people of colour.
Dufour said she wants to meet the executive director of the Centre Mamik Saguenay, Mélanie Boivin, whose organization offers services to the Indigenous community as the city works to improve the police service's hiring process.
Boivin said the police should have at least one Indigenous officer to better serve the community. She said clear policy is needed to ensure inclusiveness in the hiring process.
The city could start by looking at what provincial police are doing in the area, she added.
Boivin said her centre partners with the Sûreté du Québec in the Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean region, and officers with the SQ are better trained in the realities of Indigenous communities.
Of the SQ's 251 officers serving the Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean, 11 come from diverse backgrounds. Nine are Indigenous.
At the École nationale de police du Québec in 2020-2021, 15 per cent of police officers who graduated were members of cultural, Indigenous or non-white communities.
Victims encouraged to file complaint
Meissoon Azzaria, spokesperson for the Quebec Human Rights and Youth Rights Commission, said an employer can't legally exclude a candidate based on 14 grounds of discrimination, which includes race.
It's hard to know exactly why a candidate is rejected, she said, but to prove a case of discrimination, the proof doesn't have to be direct."
Canada's Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that it is enough to show that ethnic or Indigenous origin is one of the factors that contributed to the exclusion of a candidacy.
In some cases, it can be shown that the system has disproportionately excluded people of a certain background, said human rights lawyer Stéphanie Fournier.
People who believe they have been discriminated against in the hiring process can make an anonymous complaint to the commission for free, said Azzaria.
"The Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects against reprisals," added Fournier.
While that may be the case, police officers who consider themselves victims of racism don't often come forward, said Bourget.
"People don't dare go out against the machine," Bourget said. "They are fearful, often rightly so, of reprisals and the future repercussions it could have on their professional and personal lives."