McGill law student Balarama Holness (Photo: Tora Chirila)


Sparking a conversation on systemic discrimination

McGill law student Balarama Holness has a passion for fostering dialogue, whether it's as the driving force behind Montreal’s recent public hearings on racism and systemic discrimination, or as the host of a new radio show on CJAD.

Story by Philip Fine

February 2020

Balarama Holness
took a personal slight and transformed it into the launch of a large-scale conversation on racial injustice in Montreal.

It was 2017 and he had just run for mayor of Montreal North as a Projet Montréal candidate – not to win, he says, but to discuss issues important to the borough, including affordable housing, better public transit and inequality. He managed to run his campaign while enrolled in first-year law at McGill.

On election night, when Projet Montréal captured City Hall, he felt the win personally, despite losing his own borough race. “It was like my second Grey Cup,” says the former football player who in 2010 helped the Montreal Alouettes win the CFL championship.

So, how was Holness thanked by the mayor’s party for the 6,000 votes he garnered, the issues he raised and the sacrifices he made? He received a request to donate to Projet Montréal.

Holness wasn’t impressed, but rather than getting angry, he decided to find another route for raising some of the issues that concerned him.

The law student focused on a clause from the Montreal Charter of Rights and Responsibilities, which allows for a consultation to be launched on a topic of public concern, and ran with it. Holness believed the issue of systemic racism in Montreal needed to be aired out, but he would have to gather 15,000 handwritten signatures in 90 days to make it a reality.

The final signature tally was 22,000, thanks to his group, Montréal en action, which attracted an army of volunteers that scoured universities, places of worship and community centres. They knew the importance of the issue, he says. “You don’t need to spell it out to them. These are the people whose parents have engineering degrees and drive Ubers.”

Public hearings on Racism and Systemic Discrimination were launched by Montreal’s public consultation agency in November 2018. By December 2019, they had heard from over 5,000 people, with many offering solutions to a variety of race-based problems. Final recommendations will be outlined in March. “It’s now part of the municipal DNA,” says a proud Holness, adding that the City is obliged to revisit the recommendations every two years.

Holness cites his parents as major influences. His Jamaican-born father, Bevin Holness, passed on many political and intellectual lessons. “I was reading Chomsky at 13,” he says, referring to the MIT professor and longtime left-wing torchbearer. He also inherited athletic abilities from Holness senior, who was a teenage track star in his country. But he sees more clearly the influence from his late Québécoise mother, Murielle Beaudreau, a beloved dance studio owner in the Plateau Mont Royal, who loved travel and brought communities together. “I am very much like my mother, a dreamer.”

When he was one, his family moved from Montreal to an ashram in West Virginia, where they lived for eight years. He has memories of swimming in creeks and swinging on vines, and says he gained from it his sense of community, spirituality and anti-conformist tendencies.

By his teens, with his parents split, he was attending school on the West Island. He remembers watching a football game on TV in his late teens and noticing a player who was the same size as him – 5’11” and 180 lbs. It sparked ideas. After finishing high school, he studied at John Abbott College and joined their football team. That led him to play for and study at the University of Ottawa.

He was later signed with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and then picked up by the Als. After winning the Grey Cup, a foot and shoulder injury cut short his pro football career. He retired after three seasons. It wasn’t easy to leave that life behind. “It was a game that I loved and I knew my time was up.”

He went back to school, enrolling in a master’s of education program at the University of New Brunswick. He took up teaching and went to China for 10 weeks to teach English, followed by teaching stints in the United Arab Emirates and Egypt.

And now he is studying law at McGill. He says his activism isn’t out-of-place at the Faculty of Law and he appreciates the stands that his fellow students and professors have taken on various issues. “We have a dean [who] is advancing issues of justice in society, whether it’s Bill 21 or LGBTQ rights,” Holness says.

His schedule is jam-packed, with full-time studies and an infant daughter, Bella, whom he and his girlfriend are raising. On top of that is a new gig, hosting a weekend radio show on CJAD, Montreal Heroes. Recent guests have included Nakuset, the executive director of the Native Women’s Shelter and one of the driving forces behind Resilience Montreal, a day centre for homeless Indigenous people, and Dax Dasilva, the founder of Never Apart, a non-profit that promotes social change through cultural programming.

Introducing the show during its first broadcast, Holness said the idea was to focus on “Montrealers making an impact, Montrealers making a difference in the community.” If he wasn’t already busy hosting the show, it sounds like he’d be a good guest.

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