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University course on racial profiling gains popularity

Developed by the University of Ottawa and Clinique juridique de Saint-Michel, it has already been taught at four universities.


The summer of 2021 was the first time a unique course on racial profiling was offered by the University of Ottawa’s (U of Ottawa) faculty of law and the Clinique juridique de Saint-Michel legal clinic. It has since garnered keen interest from Quebec university students.

“Following the publication of a report [Les interpellations policières à la lumière des identités racisées des personnes interpellées], which confirmed that Black individuals in Quebec were stopped and questioned at disproportionate rates to white individuals in 2019, we created a racial profiling committee at the clinic in order to train members, lawyers and law students on the legal realities of this issue,” explained Fernando Belton, lecturer and general director of Clinique juridique de Saint-Michel.

According to Mr. Belton, a lawyer and Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) graduate, the clinic was further spurred to take an interest in racial profiling by the global awakening that followed the death of George Floyd in May 2020.

In addition, testimony from 50 victims of racial profiling in Quebec collected one month later by the clinic’s racial profiling committee served as a springboard for creating the course, which was developed by Mr. Belton and Rhita Harim, a Université de Montréal (U de M) law graduate and the clinic’s coordinator.

The genesis of the course

“This gave us an idea of the scope of the phenomenon in Quebec, and we asked ourselves what we could do concretely to help bring an end to it,” said Mr. Belton, who submitted the plan for the course to Marie-Ève Sylvestre, professor and dean of the U of Ottawa faculty of law’s civil law section in February 2021.

“As the legal clinic has been our research partner since its creation, when the idea of creating a course on the issue of racial profiling was proposed to me, I agreed right away,” said Dr. Sylvestre, who for the past 20 years has devoted part of her research work to issues of profiling and the stopping and questioning of homeless, racialized and Indigenous persons in public spaces. “I saw the necessity of creating this course, both because of its social and legal relevance and due to the cross-sectional approach to learning proposed.”

The course “covers matters of criminal law, civil responsibility and administrative law,” she added. “So, it combines several areas of law, which represents an added value for our students.”

A practical, multidisciplinary approach

According to Mr. Belton, his course is a legal perspective on the issue of racial profiling. It also covers related topics, such as sociology and social profiling, which comprise factors of intersectionality.

“Students are taught practical areas of law, such as cross-examination, which is a crucial aspect of racial profiling cases,” he said. “They also have the opportunity to watch videos of real cases for a concrete view of the problem.” In this course, students will complete an exercise where they will try a case based on a real-life trial in front of a panel of three lawyers, using the concepts they have learned.

Dr. Sylvestre has been pleased to see several other faculty members get involved by sharing material in the course. “The faculty has been very engaged with the course,” she explained. She has contributed by presenting her research on social profiling, racial profiling at roadway intersections, and the criminalization of people experiencing homelessness.

“Some of my colleagues have presented topics related to artificial intelligence and civil responsibility of [police forces],” she continued.

Gaining popularity

Mr. Belton is thrilled with students’ positive response. “The course filled up in one day at the University of Ottawa, and we realized that students from other law faculties had registered, even though tuition fees are higher in Ottawa than in Quebec,” he said. “This shows that law students are very interested in having this training.”

Audrey Caron-Parent is a McGill University law student who was among the first cohort to take the course at the U of Ottawa. “Mr. Belton is one of the only professors who is able to perfectly combine the theoretical and practical aspects of law,” she said.

Ms. Caron-Parent believes that the course is relevant, especially given government inaction on racial tensions and systemic racism.

“The course gives us the tools to not only identify racial profiling cases, but also to use it in our defence, which could lead to more and more case law on the issue,” she said.

Most cases of racial profiling are settled out of court. But this has become an increasing problem over the last 10 years. According to the Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse du Québec, for the last three years, the average number of cases has been 77 per year, compared to 2011-12, when 47 cases were opened.

Ms. Caron-Parent pointed out that the course helps establish a common language with which to speak about the issue of racial profiling at the universities where it is taught.

Reception in Quebec

Given the popularity of the course in Ottawa, Mr. Belton approached several law faculties in Quebec, who enthusiastically accepted his proposal to offer the course to their students.

So far, the course has been taught twice at the U of Ottawa, once in the summer of 2022 at UQAM and once last fall at McGill. It is on the course calendar for the winter 2023 semester at U de M. To date, more than 200 students have learned about racial profiling through the course.

Law students who have completed a minimum of 15 credits in their program can register for the course at the U of Ottawa this summer or at UQAM in the fall.

If Mr. Belton has his way, the course will be taught at all civil law faculties in Quebec by 2024. To reach as many students as possible, a condensed one-day session will be offered to graduate students at Université Laval and Université de Sherbrooke this winter.

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