For many, Balarama Holness will always be the former Canadian football safety who won the Grey Cup Championship with the Montreal Alouettes in 2010 despite the fact that a series of injuries cut short his football career. A few years ago, Montrealers got to take another look at the local star athlete when Holness represented Projet Montréal in the 2017 Montreal municipal election for borough mayor of Montreal North. He wasn’t elected but that didn’t dampen his enthusiasm for squaring off in the political arena.
“It’s no secret I’ll be in the next municipal election,” he says,” but there are a lot of options.” For the last few years the 37 year old educator and community organizer with Jamaican and Québécois roots has been mulling over the idea of running for a seat on Montreal Council and he isn’t ruling out a run for the top job. It’s not clear yet in what capacity he might run or for what party or even if he might present with a coalition of like-minded candidates rather than run on any party banner. “It’s still early,” he says. But, his passion for a more representative council that better reflects the ethno-cultural diversity of the city is a major impetus for a second run. “Montreal deserves better government,” he says.
Who is Balarama Holness?
Holness was recently profiled by the CTV Television Network on its current affairs program W5. The episode, which aired on Nov. 21, 2020 was billed as “an inspirational view of a man confronting systemic racism.” While he was a law student at McGill University Holness started an organization to tackle the issue of racial inequality. He and his ‘team’ from Montréal en Action collected more than 22,000 signatures to legally oblige the city to hold public consultations on systemic racism and discrimination. This led to a 252-page report with 38 recommendations.
In June 2020, after 18 months of hearings, Mayor Valérie Plante acknowledged the major finding of the report: systemic racism was happening throughout all areas of public life in Montreal. She spoke of a “collective awakening” taking place at that moment in time, one which the report had helped to catalyze. “Systemic racism does exist,” she said. Holness has said that Montréal en Action forced a public dialogue and concrete action on systemic racism here in Quebec, changing the organizational structure of Montreal.
For one thing, the report forced Montreal’s police service to change how street checks are performed: they will now be based on observable facts and not skin colour. Balarama Holness, who has been compared to Barack Obama makes it clear that Montrealers will no longer tolerate racial profiling, or systemic discrimination of any kind, be it in employment, housing, or anything else. ”We feel empowered because we are on the right side of history,” he told Avery Haines on W5.
Holness has a passion for another project: a just economic relaunch. He would like to see those most impacted by COVID-19 included in a meaningful way. ”A just economic relaunch for those disproportionately burdened by COVID-19 is needed,” he says. ”All Montrealers have to have economic opportunity … to relaunch their businesses, to start new ones, to regain employment.” A ”relance juste” is also about giving the whole city an uplift and not just privileged boroughs. ”If you live beyond the centralized city you are disconnected from the centre of economic activity,” he says. This means that all modes of public transportation have got to do a better job of connecting boroughs on the periphery to the centre city so that residents in these neighbourhoods can have the same economic opportunities as those who live closer to the downtown core.
Holness, who is studying for the bar, has always placed great stock in education. He credits education with changing the trajectory of his own life from high school drop-out to teacher, pro-athlete, and community leader. He sees himself as an agent for change and participatory democracy as providing the legal mechanisms to make change happen.