Balarama Holness leads 'positive rebellion' for a seat at the table

Linda Gyulai • Montreal Gazette Publishing date: Sep 15, 2022  

Bloc Montreal leader says his third bid for public office shows his determination to be heard and "start advancing change."
There was something about the player known as “Bala” that gave his teammates the feeling he was going to do more in life than pro football.
Even so, Balarama Holness managed to surprise at least one of his fellow former Alouettes with his run for mayor of Montreal last year “I have to admit I was surprised by that because that's a pretty big step,” said Matthieu Proulx, who was a starting safety on defense for the CFL team for six seasons.
“I was pretty proud of him to have the courage to do that.”
And Holness surprised again this year by launching a provincial political party, Bloc Montreal, to run in the Quebec election.
But that Holness thing the political arena at all is not startling, Proulx added.
“You meet people like that who you know there's more than football in their life,” Proulx said. Holness played defensive back on special teams during the Alouettes' Gray Cup-winning 2010 season.
“He was invested in what he did, but you could see he had a lot of interests.”
Doing the unexpected is part of what Holness, 39, calls the “positive rebellion” he has engaged in for most of his life.
An example of that would be the former high school dropout going on to earn five university degrees, including a law degree from McGill University and a master's in education from the University of New Brunswick.
“I often say that students don't fail high school. The education system fails students,” He Said. “The act of going to McGill law was a form of rebellion, to take back the education I didn't get when I was younger.”
Another example of the search for positive change, Holness said, is creating political parties at the municipal level and the provincial level as “democratic spaces” for members of ethnocultural communities like himself, who are under-represented in Parliament, at the National Assembly and at Montreal city hall.
“It's a rebellion,” he said, “but a positive rebellion.”
Proulx, who works today as a commentator for RDS sports channel, describes the Holness he knew over a decade ago as “very friendly, a good team player.” He was curious. He was liked by his colleagues. He wasn't afraid to give his opinion, but he didn't try to talk over the other players either.
Holness was also a confident — borderline cocky — player, Proulx said.
“And I say this in the most positive way,” he added. “I think it's a personality trait that's essential in several fields, professional sports being one and politics being another.”
Professional athletes become cocky out of necessity, Proulx said, “to build a kind of shield to protect themselves from the criticism, the heartaches they're going to get along the way.”
Holness has so far given himself only a few occasions for heartache on the political field.
He made his first attempt to win a seat at the municipal level five years ago, as a candidate for borough mayor of Montreal North under the Projet Montréal banner. The party of Valérie Plante won the Montreal mayoralty and a majority in that 2017 election, but Holness wasn't among its breakthrough candidates.
Last year's mayoral race was his second election, and he founded the Movement Montreal party for the occasion. He finished third behind Plante and former mayor Denis Coderre, receiving 7.2 per cent of the popular vote. Movement Montreal still exists, and Holness vows the party will be there for 2025 municipal election. Movement Montreal and Bloc Montreal, he said, “will survive my political career.”
In a way, this third electoral venture may be his most ambitious yet. It is, after all, a leap onto the bigger stage of provincial politics. Yet as the name suggests, Bloc Montreal isn't focused on winning power. For starters, the island of Montreal only elects 27 representatives to the 125-seat National Assembly. And the party has announced a dozen candidates so far, including one in Laval.
Holness responds that it's a false debate. All polls indicate the Coalition Avenir Québec will cruise to a solid majority in this election, he said. “That means every party, apart from the CAQ, is running not to be in power.”
His only dabble in mainstream parties was his first election as a Projet Montréal candidate in Montreal North. But Holness reveals that he had actually planned to run in that race as an independent before an acquaintance introduced him to Plante.
And he chose Montreal North despite having no personal connection to the borough.
“I'm more of a community organizer than a politician,” Holness said. “Montreal North was in need of love.”
He had an affinity with the borough, he said, having grown up in a single-parent home where food insecurity was a reality.
Montreal North is “an example of what's wrong in politics,” Holness said. “The place that needs the most attention gets the least.”
Following the 2017 defeat, he accused Projet Montréal of systemic racism and charged that political parties “use” racialized minorities to bump up their diversity numbers while running them in un-winnable races with inadequate support.
Holness then channeled his energy into creating Montreal in Action. The non-profit organization collected 22,000 signatures on a petition that in 2019 forced the city of Montreal to hold public hearings on systemic racism and discrimination within the police force and municipal departments. The hearings drew 7,000 participants and led to a damning report that recommended sweeping changes and compelled the city to recognize the existence of systemic racism.
The petition work garnered him a profile in the New York Times as the aspiring Canadian Obama.
Holness is a good representative of contemporary Montreal, said Jack Jedwab, president of the Association for Canadian Studies and Metropolis Canada and an author and editor of books on multiculturalism and official languages.
But for Jedwab, Holness is an enigma.
“He could be an interesting or attractive candidate to one of the mainstream parties,” Jedwab said, noting that Holness has chosen to run for a seat in the Liberal stronghold of Notre-Dame-de-Grâce.
“But he chooses not to be. It's to his credit if it's all about principle.”
However, Jedwab said an existential question hangs over small protest parties like Bloc Montreal and the Canadian Party of Quebec, led by Colin Standish.
“They desperately need to get that one representative inside the (National Assembly), to give them a voice,” he said, adding that without a seat they are movements. “And they're movements that can range from being robust to marginal.”
Noah Sidel, who ran for the CAQ in NDG riding in 2014 and finished third, said he disagrees with the protest parties on their opposition to Bill 96. They offer the “same old” view that protecting French diminishes English, he said.
But while Sidel calls Standish “the definition of angry phone,” he has kinder words for Holness.
“I think he's egregiously misguided, but I think his heart is in the right place,” Sidel said, adding that he plans to vote CAQ.
“I don't think he's an opportunist. I think he genuinely believes that he's fighting the right fight.”
Those around Holness say it's about putting new ideas on the table.
“And even if those ideas are not going to be immediately implemented, it does influence the political discourse,” said Janusz Kaczorowski, the Bloc Montreal candidate in Saint-Henri—Sainte-Anne riding in Montreal's southwest district.
“It does emphasize important issues that affect significant numbers of people. And someone has to voice those opinions.
Kaczorowski, a professor and research director at the Université de Montréal and the CHUM who specializes in family medicine and optimal management of chronic diseases"
, said he chose to approach Holness to run for Bloc Montreal precisely because it's grassroots and focused on Montreal.
“Clearly, he is not your classical, seasoned politician, which was also part of the appeal,” Kaczorowski said of Holness.
“I don't think politicians should be professional. I think it should be people representing their communities. And I think Balarama is a good representative for this new Montreal, this multiethnic, multicultural, multilingual community.”
Kaczorowski also noted that the CAQ reneged on its 2018 campaign promise to introduce electoral reform, which enables more parties to gain seats based on their share of the popular vote. Adding an element of proportional representation, which is now in the Bloc Montreal platform, would allow Quebecers to vote for their preferred choice without ever again questioning whether it's a wasted vote, Kaczorowski added.
Holness continues to raise the ire of Quebec nationalists, though he's no longer calling for Montreal to become a bilingual city-state as he did in the mayoral race. Bloc Montreal talks instead of giving Montreal greater fiscal and political autonomy, just as Quebec is seeking from Ottawa.
Bloc Montreal's premise is that the province uses its metropolis as a cash cow while harmonizing it with policies that favor the outlying regions at Montreal's expense in a bid for nationalists' votes.
But so far, most of the coverage of Holness's campaign in French-language media has concerned the federal Bloc Québécois party's objection to the similarity of the party name.
Holness's focus on Montreal, including party proposals to give the city a 20-per-cent cut of Quebec Sales Tax (QST) revenue generated in Montreal, might prompt some to question whether he's still campaigning for mayor.
Holness responds that it became apparent to him last year that Montreal doesn't have the necessary power and financial means to manage problems like homelessness, the environment and housing. So the answer, he said, is to acquire a seat at the table at the provincial level.
“It's my view that the more truthful and authentic and resilient you are, over time you will have a seat at the table and gain power,” He Said. “That's when you can then start advancing change, start advancing legislation and dialogue, even if you don't have a majority.”
Meanwhile, Holness says he has stopped talking publicly about his family for safety reasons. But he has written his memoirs, due to be published in March.
He was born in Montreal to a francophone mother and an English-speaking father who had emigrated from Jamaica.
His parents, who practiced Hinduism, named him Balarama, after a Hindu god. In Sanskrit, “bala” means “strength.”
His parents separated when Holness and his twin brother were nine months old and his mother moved with his sons to a Hindu ashram in West Virginia. When they returned to Montreal a decade later, Holness initially entered a welcome class for immigrant children learning French.
Then his family moved to Boisbriand, north of Montreal, where Holness says one classmate called him the N-word and another asked him why he had mud on his face.
His teacher and the school's administration also decided he needed a “white-washed” name, he said. So around the age of 12, he suddenly became “Steven.”
His mother, who died in 2013, went along with it, Holness added, leaving him to think at the time that it was “normal to be assimilated.”
Holness says “Bala” wasn't actually his football nickname. He has been Bala to those who know him since birth.
“My nickname in football was Grinder because I worked so hard,” Holness said, with a laugh. Former CFL star Milt Stegall gave him the monicker, he said.
Goal Steven Holness still exists on football stat sheets.
Proulx said he doesn't recall exactly how Steven became Bala to his teammates when he joined the Alouettes after two seasons with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
“There was never any mention of Steven,” Proulx said.
“It was just, 'What's your name?' 'Balarama.' 'Perfect, your name's Bala. We're good. Let's go play soccer.'”





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