Balarama Holness: Changing opinions in Montreal

A year ago, Balarama Holness wasn’t sure he’d be running for mayor of the city he calls home – Montreal.

He had exams left to write and a law degree to earn; he had student loans and a new family. Holness was mobilizing like-minded change makers under the grassroots organization Montreal en Action and contributed to a radio show; sat on boards and volunteered to talk to teens looking for guidance.

Now, just weeks away from an election in one of Canada’s most influential and diverse cities, Balarama Holness has his name on Montreal lawn signs and is leading rallies to be its next mayor. He is now a lawyer, still an activist, has a master’s degree in education, and it doesn’t hurt that he won a Grey Cup playing for the Montreal Alouettes.

“I feel empowered,” he said. “If you have a certain element of understanding of pure equality and justice, is it right or wrong to be inclusive? It is right."

"It's too easy in this world where people are exclusive, to win simply, so you run knowing that people exclude Anglophones or from different colour. It's too easy. You're on the right side of history."

In 2019, Holness and his movement, Montreal En Action forced a dialogue on systemic racism which led to a damning report and 38 recommendations, many focussed on policing reform in Montreal.

Recalling the horrifying scene and video of George Floyd’s death in the United States in May 2020, Holness said, “The world knew a white police officer kneeled on the neck of George Floyd, and ultimately killed George in broad daylight. I never looked at the video for more than five seconds. What I did see, felt pain and trauma. All the videos of Black bodies being killed has an impact on our collective mental health. For me, it’s extremely difficult to watch."

Holness took a birds-eye view of the global outcry, especially watching how Canada and Quebec responded, saying, “We do not need the United States of America to have a conversation about systemic racism right here in Canada. We have our own issues.”

With legal armour, Holness cites the 1987 case of Anthony Griffin, a 19-year-old Black man who was shot and killed by Montreal police officer Allan Gosset. Gosset was acquitted two separate times of manslaughter.

Thirty-three years after that case, Holness is still reeling about the brutality on Juliano Gray on a Montreal subway platform by transit officials, for which there have been no charges of wrongdoing.

Montrealers are still seeking justice for Bony Jean Pierre who was shot dead in 2016 by a Montreal police officer who was acquitted of manslaughter.

"Change will not happen at warp speed as politicians cheer," says Holness, but in the wake of the landmark George Floyd verdict in the U.S. and with a report that acknowledges racism is alive in Montreal, Holness is calling for the police to stop carding based on race and skin colour and is calling for officers to use de-escalation techniques that integrate experts in mental health and social work when it comes to policing.

‘There is hope, yes, but have we arrived at real change, I’m reticent go that far," Holness said.

Watch CTV W5's Balarama, Saturday, Oct. 9 at 7 p.m. EDT

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