As Quebec’s premier and the mayor of Montreal defend their reactions to the deaths of two teenagers and insist it did not represent a double standard, not everyone is buying it.
Thomas Trudel and Jannai Dopwell-Bailey, both 16, were killed in Montreal in recent weeks.
Trudel, who was white, was shot and killed in Montreal’s Saint-Michel neighbourhood 10 days ago. Dopwell-Bailey, who was Black, was fatally stabbed outside a high school in the city’s west end a month earlier.
Last week, François Legault and Valérie Plante each stopped by a makeshift memorial that was set up for Trudel and mourned the teenager’s loss in public. But when a vigil was previously held for Dopwell-Bailey, both were absent, and neither made any public appearances to show support to his family.
Some people took notice, including Dopwell-Bailey’s older brother, Tyrese.
“Jannai got a lot of support from the community, but not from officials and people in power — and that’s what we need,” he said, speaking outside the teen’s funeral last week.
WATCH | Jannai Dopwell-Bailey’s brother says politicians did not offer support to his family:
“I don’t think they understood the gravity of the message they were sending,” said Myrna Lashley, an associate professor of psychiatry at McGill University and the former director of the Canadian Race Relations Foundation.
“It sent a message that a white child’s life is worth more than a Black child’s life,” she said. “And that the premier of the province and the mayor of the City of Montreal should attend commemorations for that child but ignore the other child.”
Lashley and other experts CBC News spoke to used words like “unacceptable,” “disturbing” and “harmful” to describe the actions of the premier and the mayor.
But they also all agreed it wasn’t surprising, pointing to a wealth of research that has looked at how biases shape differences in how Black and white youth are viewed, whether consciously or not.
Black youth less likely to be seen as innocent
Two days after paying respects to Trudel near the scene of the teenager’s death, Legault lamented the recent string of violence involving Montreal youth in a Facebook post.
In it, he wrote about the deaths of Trudel and Meriem Boundaoui, a 15-year-old girl shot last winter.
His post initially made no mention of Dopwell-Bailey.
The premier later edited the post to say he was also shaken by Dopwell-Bailey’s death, adding that he had not mentioned him at first because he was writing specifically about gun violence, and the Black teen had been stabbed.
On Monday, the premier held a joint news conference with Montreal’s mayor, partly to call on the federal government to ban handguns. But they also offered reassurance to those who had accused them of valuing the life of one slain teenager more than another.
“I want to say to the family [of Dopwell-Bailey] that there’s no double standard,” Legault said. “My message was about gunshots. We want to [ban] guns, and that’s what I was talking about.”
As for Plante, she said members of her party were present at the vigil held for Dopwell-Bailey, if she was not. She also said she’s reached out to his family to offer support.
“I definitely want to reassure everybody that, to me, there’s no double standard when it comes to just protecting our youth,” said Plante, who had acknowledged the existence of systemic racism in Montreal’s municipal institutions last year and vowed to fight it.
Research does, however, suggest a double standard exists.
A 2014 study by American psychologist Phillip Atiba Goff found that Black boys as young as 10 can “be seen as responsible for their actions at an age when white boys still benefit from the assumption that children are essentially innocent.”
According to Anne-Marie Livingstone, an assistant professor of sociology at McMaster University in Hamilton, those values and perceptions “are ingrained in our culture.”
“That’s why they can get away with not showing concern for the Black child,” said Livingstone, who is originally from Montreal.
Her research deals with topics such as the relationship between public institutions and racial inequalities, as well as the over-policing of Black youth in Montreal.
Montreal has been living in a climate in which “Black youth are demonized” for a number of years now, Livingstone said, with a lot of “very, very inflammatory, very harsh stereotypes about deviance and delinquency associating Black kids with crime and gangs.”
And that context, in part, might be figuring into the two leaders’ reactions, she said.
There have been no arrests in Trudel’s death. When Dopwell-Bailey was killed, Montreal police said they were looking for three suspects; so far one person, a minor, has been arrested and charged.
‘Racial dynamics at play’
Kanika Samuels-Wortley is an assistant professor of sociology at Carleton University in Ottawa who has done research that shows how Black and Indigenous youth perceive law enforcement as treating them more harshly than white youth.
How politicians react to tragedies can also affect how the public views crime, she said, and the actions of Legault and Plante “help maintain racial stereotypes that negatively impact members of the Black community.”
“It is hard not to see the racial dynamics at play,” said Samuels-Wortley, adding that “these representations can be quite harmful.”
“Perceptions of differential treatment may too be perceived [by youth] who are seeing their political leaders publicly grieve over a white victim of violence, and not their Black counterpart,” she said.
Lashley wonders if anyone in the premier or the mayor’s camps warned them about the optics of their actions.
“Who are the PR people? Who are the communications people, where someone isn’t saying to them, ‘Don’t do this, [because] this is the message you’re sending,'” she asked.
“Do all or do none.”