Longtime human-rights activist Dan Philip is well known to Montrealers who care about issues of social justice.
Whenever instances of alleged racism surface in the media or on the street, it is often his opinion journalists seek.
High-profile cases have included celebrity psychiatrist Pierre Mailloux, who made comments many thought to be racist on the popular talk show Tout le monde en parle in 2005, and Bye Bye 2008, a New Year’s special on Radio Canada TV for which the broadcaster received more than 1,000 complaints.
Over the four decades Philip has worked with the Black Coalition of Canada and later as president of the Ligue des noirs du Québec, he has advocated on behalf of many people away from the public eye who suffer racism at work or when seeking a home.
Longtime colleague Gabriel Bazin has taken over as the Ligue’s president, while Philip, 77, maintains a steady presence as director at the organization he founded in 1980. He has a long view of what has improved over the years, as well as what has not.
“Our capacity to represent ourselves has improved,” Philip said, recalling that in the ’60s, the black community had little or no access to legal representation. “We did not have access to justice and we did not have access to any person of authority to whom we could have addressed our problem.”
Now there are increasing numbers of people from visible minorities in positions of authority, Philip says. “At that time, it was someone else who spoke for us in terms of the problems that faced us, but this has changed. There has been a great sense of mobility.”
In 1969, there was a large student protest at Sir George Williams University (now Concordia) stemming from racism charges leveled against a professor by two students. There was rioting and 97 people were arrested, including Anne Clare Cools, who would become in 1984 the first black person to be appointed to the Canadian Senate.
“It is perhaps because of the protests that the Black Coalition of Canada was formed,” Philip recalls. “From Day 1, the coalition was formed as a human rights organization to give people their rights through the courts.”
Eventually, Philip said, it became necessary to create an offshoot in Quebec.
In 1980, he became president of the Ligue des Noirs du Québec, which continues to field calls for help on a daily basis. The organization deals with cases of discrimination around problems obtaining housing and work.
“We deal with a wide range of subjects and also we have been involved in discussing social problems with the police.”
Challenges remain, Philip says. “One is how are we going to apply ourselves in society, and the other is the inability of society and those who are in power to reduce racism in a more significant way. We are faced with racial profiling in terms of brutality against our community and it seems to be a problem that has no end.”
In 1991, the year 24-year-old Marcellus François died when police mistook him for a murder suspect, Philip said, “Every year someone is getting shot and hurt and they talk to us about inquiry boards and all that nonsense. If nothing is done, the situation will get worse.”
According to Jacques Frémont, president of the Quebec Human Rights Commission, in the last 20 to 24 years, 25 people who were racially or socially profiled have died during police interventions; in the last 10 years, 108 were killed or injured, with only two officers being charged. Frémont said on CBC’s Daybreak that under the present system of one police force investigating another, “evidence is almost impossible to get.”
For years, a chorus of voices have called for an independent inquiry concerning deaths involving the police. Last May, Bill 12, a law calling for an independent oversight body was unanimously adopted by the National Assembly. However, it remains to be implemented.
Following the recent deaths during police interventions of Donald Ménard in November 2013 and Alain Magloire in February, both 41, the call for independent investigation has intensified. Quebec Public Security Minister Stéphane Bergeron estimates it will take two years to implement the bill.
Both Frémont and Philip say that police investigating police does not work.
“If you’re going to get justice there should be a process where justice can be given,” Philip says.