Opinion: The pitfalls with Montreal's effort to battle systemic racism

However, Plante also gave Wong the French-language portfolio, as if to send a message that the fight against systemic racism will be carried out within the full parameters of the French Language Charter. Therein lies the major pitfall of this new appointment.

Being responsible for the French-language file, Wong will be called upon to defend city policies and practices on language, which might not endear her to the English-speaking community in general, and more specifically, to increasingly vocal anglophones from the Asian, Black, Middle Eastern and South Asian communities who often experience two or three times more exclusion due to race and language bias, especially in accessing city jobs.

During last fall’s OCPM consultation, the Concordia Student Union decried the fact that its employment service never received job ads from the city. CRARR also pointed to the total exclusion of racialized English-speaking people from city boards and commissions. If Wong believes that “French language is a powerful vector of integration,” as she said after her appointment, how will she integrate the city’s public service and boards by appointing anglophones of diverse backgrounds?

Furthermore, Wong is the councillor for a district (Peter McGill), where 40 per cent of residents are members of visible minorities and between 30 per cent (based on those who speak English but not French) to 47 per cent (based on the language spoken at home) are English-speaking. Her dual mandate may thus be a poisoned chalice if she fails with anglophones’ inclusion.

Plante could have given the French-language portfolio to another executive member to avoid placing Wong in a conflicted position with her anti-racism mandate.

Another pitfall lies in the appointment of an anti-racism commissioner. Contrary to the three existing positions of commissioners on Indigenous affairs, homelessness and children, this commissioner will have staff, and answer directly to the city’s director general. The new commissioner will co-ordinate the implementation of an anti-racism action plan and collaborate with the ombudsman, the inspector general, the comptroller general and the Public Service Commission of Montreal. In short, be a kind of internal watchdog against discrimination.

While the new commissioner will be a high-level civil servant with an ambitious mandate, he or she will not be independent, but will report directly to city council. The post will not have the same level of oversight authority as that of the comptroller general and the inspector general. The risk of being silenced by the upper echelon of a bureaucracy known for systemic exclusion of anglophones and racialized minorities is elevated.

Since the anti-racism commissioner will work closely with executive committee member Wong, it seems obvious that anglophones of diverse backgrounds will have to be doubly vigilant in the months ahead, as they seem likely to remain well under the city’s radar of equity and inclusion.

Fo Niemi is executive director and Kathryn Nicassio researcher at the Center for Research-Action on Race Relations (CRARR).

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In response to the 38 recommendations laid out in the report on systemic racism and discrimination released June 15 by the Office de consultation publique de Montréal (OCPM), Mayor Valérie Plante acted quickly.

Her immediate actions include appointing city council Speaker Cathy Wong to the executive committee with responsibilities for diversity, employment inclusion, antiracism and the French language, and creating the position of commissioner for the fight against racism and discrimination. More importantly, Plante also recognized the existence of systemic racism in Montreal.

Although the mayor’s actions seem encouraging, one must proceed with guarded optimism.

First, elevating Wong to the executive committee — the cabinet of the city’s administration — is indeed a welcoming move. Wong is the sole (and badly needed) face of racial diversity in the mayor’s caucus, despite the fact that more than 30 per cent of Montrealers are members of “visible minorities.” Wong is Asian, young, knowledgeable on discrimination, and capable of tackling systemic racism in ways that other executive committee members cannot.

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