Balarama Holness wants to make Montreal more equitable and inclusive

CBC Quebec is highlighting people from the province’s Black communities who are giving back, inspiring others and helping to shape our future. These are the Black Changemakers.

In 2017, Balarama Holness ran for mayor of Montreal North. He didn’t win, but that was only the beginning of the story.

Holness, who studied law at McGill University and has a master’s degree in education, started a group called Montreal in Action, which uses law to advance social justice and promote inclusion and diversity.

Their first order of business: get the city to hold public consultations about systemic racism in municipal institutions.

The group, made up of about 50 young people, collected 20,000 signatures, and made the consultations a reality.

The final report was released last year, and concluded the city has “neglected” the fight against racism and discrimination and does not recognize the systemic nature of the problem.

In response, Mayor Valérie Plante introduced a motion at city council to formally recognize systemic racism, appoint a commissioner to counter racism, hire more minorities to public posts and improve accountability among the Montreal police service.

“The mayor is not doing this out of her own political willingness or a sudden epiphany,” Holness said, but as a direct response to the recommendations that came from the consultation, which Montreal in Action made happen.

Despite scoring that victory, Holness said he sees the resultant gains as administrative — changes that don’t necessarily impact people on the ground.

“When you see … on television, a minority getting stopped by police officers for wearing a red coat, or you hear about an Indigenous person frozen in a bathroom stall during the pandemic, you question how much of an impact your work is really having.”

He said even though they’re not seeing concrete changes right now, the group will keep trying to make them happen.

Holness’s name has been floating around as a possible candidate in this year’s municipal election, but he says his work with Montreal in Action is what he is focused on right now.

He said he is leaning toward not running, but is keeping his options open.

Holness believes what differentiates him from other politicians is that his drive to create change wasn’t sparked by a sudden epiphany.

Rather, he is motivated by what he went through — dealing with food insecurity, going to schools that lacked resources, and being underrepresented in the school curriculum.

“It is through those lived experiences that flow my passion and my motivation to address these issues,” he said.

“There are hundreds and thousands of students, young boys and girls of all backgrounds right now in Canada who are not meeting their fullest potential because of a lack of services, of resources, specifically within the education sector.”

He feels that he is still full of the optimism that is a hallmark of youth. His belief that Montreal can become a more equitable and inclusive space also keeps him going.

He advises those who are decidedly more pessimistic about the future to look within themselves first, and embrace all the parts of their identity that make them who they are.

“That, for me, is step one. And then once you’re comfortable with that, you will feel empowered to be able to tackle issues in society and make a difference.”

The Black Changemakers is a special series recognizing individuals who, regardless of background or industry, are driven to create a positive impact in their community. From tackling problems to showing small gestures of kindness on a daily basis, these changemakers are making a difference and inspiring others. Meet all the changemakers here.

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