December 4, 2020

Balarama Holness Wants to Be the ‘Canadian Obama’

MONTREAL — For Balarama Holness, the defining moment of his life happened four years before he was born. It was at a Bob Marley concert in Montreal, when the eyes of his Québécois mother and his Jamaican father interlocked as the singer wailed, “Get up, stand up, stand up for your rights!”

It was the final year of the freewheeling 1970s, and his adventurous Francophone mother and ascetic Anglophone father were strangers in a sprawling hockey arena. But Mr. Holness said barriers of language and race momentarily collapsed as the Marley anthem washed over the crowd — a rare alchemy that he said he had spent his whole life chasing.

“The music dissolved fictitious divisions in society,” Mr. Holness said, “and somewhere between the dreadlocks, the Jamaican patois and Québécois French, the seeds of my existence were sowed, along with my future as a rebel.”

Educator, broadcaster, law student and former championship-winning professional Canadian football player, Mr. Holness, 36, aspires to be a “Canadian Obama” — another “biracial lawyer,” he observes, who cut his teeth as a community organizer. His other role model is Colin Kaepernick, the Black quarterback whose kneeling during the American national anthem before N.F.L. games became a potent symbol against racial and social injustice.

Mr. Holness’s outsized swagger and ambition are perhaps inevitable — he noted that because of his parents’ respect for Hindu tradition, they named him Balarama, considered by some a god with extraordinary strength. A first cousin, Andrew Holness, is Jamaica’s prime minister.

In Balarama Holness’s case, he has grabbed Canadian headlines after mobilizing a grass-roots movement over the past two years that pushed Montreal’s City Hall to hold hearings on systemic racism. That is no small accomplishment in Quebec, a French-majority province where the government has repeatedly denied the existence of systemic racism.

ImageMr. Holness, center, with members of Montreal in Action submitting the 22,000 signatures that in 2018 legally required the city to hold hearings into systemic racism and discrimination.
Credit…Balamara Holness

Over 12 months, 7,000 people testified or made submissions for the inquiry, which published a damning report last month concluding that City Hall was turning a blind eye to racial profiling by the police. It also took City Hall to task for the fact that nonwhite people accounted for only 6 percent of the city’s 103 elected officials.

After the report, Quebec’s premier, François Legault, appointed two Black ministers to lead an anti-racism task force, while Mr. Holness has become a go-to advocate at Canadian universities, civic events and government ministries.

David Lametti, Canada’s minister of justice and attorney general, who has sought out Mr. Holness for advice, recalled that Mr. Holness had grilled him amiably on his radio show. During the interview, he implored the minister to consider when making policy that Black people were disproportionately imprisoned by the criminal justice system.

“He wasn’t easy on me — he is smart without being overbearing,” Mr. Lametti said. “I see him as a national leader. We need his voice.”

Greg Fergus, the chair of the Black caucus in Canada’s Parliament, credited Mr. Holness with helping engender a “national reckoning” on race.

Mr. Holness observed that while Canada has sought to portray itself as a progressive, liberal bastion, the reality is far more sinister, with Indigenous people subjugated, Black residents in Toronto 20 times as likely to be killed by the police than white residents, and historical amnesia.

He met his partner, Darnella Torelli, an international development student, after spotting her while collecting signatures on a Montreal street.

They gave their 11-month-old daughter the middle name Angélique, after Marie Joseph Angélique, a 29-year-old enslaved woman who fought for liberty and was tortured and hanged after being accused in 1734 of burning down a Montreal neighborhood.

Credit…Nasuna Stuart-Ulin for The New York Times

When he began his quest to fight systemic racism, Mr. Holness recalled, some Quebecers vilified him and accused him of “playing the victim,” while some veteran activists dismissed him as a cocky upstart. But he said the global uprising for Black rights spurred by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis had elevated his own voice and ambitions.

“The abuse of power has plagued brown and Black people, and we have had enough,” Mr. Holness said.

His own egalitarian spirit took hold early, after his parents separated and his mother took him and his baby twin brother to live in a Hindu ashram in West Virginia. He ate communal meals, meditated daily and said he had little consciousness of his ethnicity or skin color.

He said his tenacity was honed at age 9, when he entered the ashram’s dome-like sweat lodge, where members went to pray, and suddenly found himself in total darkness, frightened, panicked and unable to breathe. “I realized for the first time I could harness my mind to master my fear,” he said.

But his idyllic world was turned upside down at age 10, when his mother moved them from the ashram to a predominantly white suburban neighborhood of Montreal. His mother opened a dance studio, but the family struggled financially. He was reunited with his bookish father, who had renounced material goods and devoted himself full time to a Hindu temple.

Mr. Holness recalled that he was eager to fit in. But at his underfunded Francophone public high school, his skin color derailed that plan.

“One boy asked me, ‘Why do you have mud on your face?’ Another called me the N-word,’” he said. “For the first time I realized I was different — a brown kid with curly hair, a vegetarian with a funny name.”

He added: “One of my teachers even gave me a new name to try and assimilate me: ‘Steven.’ I was too white to be accepted by the Black students and too Black to be accepted by the white students.”

Credit…via Balamara Holness

Soon, he recalled, he was getting into fist fights, smoking pot and going on alcohol binges. He was randomly carded by the police repeatedly and, on one occasion, shoved into the back of a police car after being accused of loitering.

Although he was a talented street basketball player by his late teens, he had never played organized football. Nevertheless, while watching an N.F.L. game on television at 18, he decided to become a professional football player after seeing a defensive back who was 5-foot-11 and 180 pounds, just as he was. He went on to play for the University of Ottawa.

He clashed with the team captain and, on one occasion around that time, broke his hand in a fight. But his speed — he could run 40 yards in 4.4 seconds — captured the attention of Canadian Football League scouts. He went on to sign as an undrafted free agent with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and, after that contract expired, signed on with his hometown Montreal Alouettes.

Thanks to the discipline of professional football, Mr. Holness said, “the drugs and negative influences shed like dead skin.”

In 2010, two months before training camp for the Grey Cup championship, Canada’s equivalent of the Super Bowl, Mr. Holness broke his foot, and doctors told him that his season was over.

Fearful that he would lose his place on the team, he kept it to himself and trained despite the pain. He went on to help the Alouettes win the Grey Cup, and still proudly wears his championship ring.

“It represented all I had overcome,” he said.

Credit…Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press, via Associated Press

But after a series of injuries, he decided to leave professional sports and become a teacher. Devastated after his mother died in 2013 from a viral illness at age 57, he went on the road for two years, living for a time in China.

After a stint as a teacher, he applied for law school at McGill, Canada’s most prestigious university, and during his first year as a student there, he ran for mayor of Montreal North, one of the country’s poorest neighborhoods.

After losing the election, he accused his left-leaning political party of using nonwhite candidates for public relations but not giving them adequate support to win elections. Some critics called him a sore loser.

Unbowed, he then took up the cause of fighting systemic racism, though he said that getting Quebecers to acknowledge it was challenging because Canada’s mostly white Francophone minority viewed “multiculturalism as a threat to their own culture and identity.”

Now, he is considering a run for mayor of Montreal and then national politics.

“My ultimate goal,” he said, “is for society to be a place just like that concert back in 1979. I’m a dreamer like my mother.”