MONTREAL — For years, members of Montreal's black community have told stories about the discrimination they've allegedly suffered at the hands of the city police: A black lawyer in a BMW, repeatedly pulled over. A man checking his cell phone on the street, questioned and eventually arrested. Seemingly routine police interventions that escalate to violence and even death.
On Tuesday, the head of the Black Coalition of Quebec said that after decades of having their claims largely ignored, a class action lawsuit against the City of Montreal offers a chance for justice.
"For more than 40 years, we have been looking to give the people some semblance of justice ... and we end up being thrown aside," said Dan Philip, the organization's president.
"They say you can't win anything, and today we have, and that's for the first time — not only in Quebec, but in Canada," he said, calling the decision "historic."
Sitting at table in the organization's office, beneath posters of such figures as Muhammad Ali, Nelson Mandela, and Barack Obama, in front of a white candle meant to symbolize hope, Philip and two other members of the organization expressed hope that the lawsuit would lead to change.
On Aug. 7, a Quebec Superior Court judge authorized a class action against Montreal on behalf of citizens who allege they were unfairly arrested, detained, and racially profiled by the city's police between mid-August 2017 and Jan 2019.
In his ruling, Justice Andre Prevost said the class action would address a number of questions, including whether city representatives acted in a discriminatory fashion and violated the rights of the plaintiffs.
While he ruled that the claimants had enough evidence to proceed, the allegations contained in the lawsuit will still need to be proven in court.
Philip acknowledged that Prevost's decision is just the first step in lengthy legal process, but it still sends a powerful message.
"This is not just a victory for the black community, it is also a victory for justice," he said.
Philip said the class action is also necessary to show how the city's leaders sided with authorities instead of meeting their responsibility to protect visible minorities.
"The City of Montreal, in all the cases of abuse and discrimination against the black community, has always contested the justified actions of the black community who are victims of discrimination and racial profiling," he said.
The city has so far declined comment on Prevost's decision, saying the matter is before the courts.
Gabriel Bazin, the coalition's vice-president, said members of Montreal's black and cultural communities have suffered routine harassment and profiling.
He cited the case of lead plaintiff Alexandre Lamontagne, a man of Haitian origin who claims that in Aug. 2017 he was standing on the street checking his cell phone when he was questioned by two police officers. He was arrested and charged with obstructing police work and assault with the intention of resisting arrest, but the charges were later dropped.
Jean-Claude Yves, who is also of Haitian origin, told reporters at the news conference that he plans to join the class action.
Yves, 54, alleges that in 2017 he was unfairly questioned and accused of robbing a grocery store, even though the bag he was carrying contained only a Bible. He alleges he had to make several court appearances, only to learn that someone else had already been arrested for the crime.
He said the arrest left him with both physical and mental wounds.
"It gave me a lot of stress," he said. "I had to fall to the ground, my brother had to take me to the hospital."
The lawsuit is open to anyone who, "following a proactive intervention from a police officer of the city of Montreal was stopped, arrested and/or detained without justification and experienced racial profiling, a violation of their rights as a citizen and/or any other violation of the rights guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and/or the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms," according to Provost's ruling.
Those who suffered physical harm between Aug 14, 2017 and Jan 11, 2019 are eligible, while those who were not physically harmed can apply if the incident happened between July 11, 2018 and the closing period.
The coalition estimates it will have about 150 people joining the lawsuit, but that number could rise. The class action seeks both compensatory and punitive damages, but Philip on Tuesday declined to say how much is being sought.