Balarama Holness is the founder of two grassroots political parties, Mouvement Montréal and Bloc Montréal .
In 2018, Holness launched a public petition named “Montréal en Action,” which forced the municipal government to launch a public inquiry into policies of systemic racism and discrimination by gaining the support of 22,000 signatures.
In 2021, Holness announced his run for mayor of Montreal under a new political party named Mouvement Montréal. With a platform focused on remedying violence and inequality through the investment of social infrastructure, Mouvement Montréal received around 7 per cent of the total vote.
On March 7, Holness published his memoir, titled Eyes on the Horizon, that recounts his journey from his childhood days in an ashram in West Virginia to his career in politics in Montreal.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
This aricle is not an endorsement on behalf of the Daily.
Zach Cheung for the McGill Daily (MD): I imagine that writing a memoir is much like having a conversation with yourself. But as much as you have to listen to yourself, I can imagine that there’s going to be a lot of outside noise. So I wanted to ask you, how much of the news — Bill 96, Bill 2, the lead-up to the provincial election — did you have to tune out?
Balarama Holness (BH): So the big thing about this memoir is that it’s not a political manifesto. This memoir is me opening myself up to the world in a very vulnerable way. It’s a way of exposing my life story from the way my parents met, to growing up in an ashram to arriving in Quebec, to finding myself through an identity crisis at a very young age, to living through referendums, to falling off track and finding myself once again through football, to then falling into a level of deep despair with the passing of my mother and then traveling abroad.
But when it comes to the important elements of politics and policy, the book more so explains why I care about these issues. It gives the reader an insight into why I do what I do. And from that perspective, even if Bill 96 never existed, the way that I was treated in the hallways during grade school is indicative of Bill 96. So there’s no surprise to me that Bill 96 has come into play or this linguistic fight continues to engulf the province because I’ve experienced this my whole life. So there was no sense of tuning out the outside noise, but more sense of rediscovering. It’s a conversation with yourself, but when you’re analyzing and looking back to your childhood, you’re actually rediscovering elements of your life and finding common themes that you never even knew existed until you took the time to actually look and uncover, almost like an archaeological expedition into one’s life.
MD: How does the title of the book, Eyes on the Horizon, relate to how you stated that this memoir was an act of rediscovery?
BH: Yeah, Eyes on the Horizon, as a title, is interesting for multiple reasons. Number one, to give you a concrete example, when I announced the petition to require the city to have a conversation on racism, there was a lot of pushback. And because my eyes were on the horizon, I never really felt the negative influence of the people who were pushing back against you. Even when I was running for mayor of Montreal, all of the policies that I cared about were so important to me that my eyes were continuously moving forward. The immediate pushback, whether it was from the media or from critics, was water off my back because my eyes were on the horizon, the vision being so crystal clear that I didn’t care about the immediate road bumps in front of me.
MD: You say in the book: “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.” Was there a single moment in time when you realized the need to organize collectively?
BH: Yeah, there’s this kind of conundrum between individualism and collective organization. I’ve always been an individual because I grew up solo. I had to survive individually if I wanted to be able to be able to function in this community without my parents. But you also have to understand that in the community organization realm and even politics, you need to be able to mobilize a collective. You cannot do it alone. And whether it’s the 22,000 signatures to require the city to have a consultation, or whether it’s Mouvement Montréal or Bloc Montréal, these are all done with a collective of people from all different backgrounds, faiths, ethnicities, skills, and careers. That’s what makes it enriching, and it’s something I’m very proud of.
And when you look at what we built in terms of Mouvement Montréal, a political party that is a true reflection of Canada, of Quebec, of Montreal — that is what parliament should look like. That is what the National Assembly should look like. The policies, more importantly, that we were invoking are what should be reflected in our democratic society, in our view. So it’s not just about the aesthetics of diversity, but it’s about the substance of the policies that’s critically important and that we’re still waiting to have come to fruition. And that’s why the journey continues.
MD: You often mention that education is a source of political empowerment. How do you think activists should use their education to hold institutions accountable?
BH: It’s not just about activists, it’s about minorities at large. And it’s not just about education equating to higher socioeconomic statuses; immigrants and minorities do have equal, if not higher, levels of education but income is not always connected to that because of employment discrimination and other factors. Education should be a way to free yourself from the shackles of desire in this material world and to empower yourself and your consciousness. So it’s not just a question of activists, but it’s anyone who feels as though they’re marginalized or oppressed. It’s that love and that passion for education. It could be through a book, it could be through travel, it could be through conversations, it could be through conscientious awareness and developing that with other people. That is what’s going to emancipate the oppressed from the oppressor, as opposed to simply viewing education as an economic means for uplifting oneself.
MD: What do you see in the future of both Bloc Montréal and Mouvement Montréal?
BH: Well, the next generation plays a large role in continuing the journey. And it’s my job now to stay on the front lines to instruct and guide the next change makers, to ensure a vision beyond politics: a vision of human dignity based on quality access. Similar to the green spaces that I grew up in — obviously we can’t recreate the Appalachian Mountains here in Montreal — we want green spaces in these low income neighborhoods. The sports centers that I used as harbour when I had fallen off track, I want those same sports centers for the next generation right here in Montreal. The same opportunities I had as a leader in a political party, I would hope for proper education to instruct the next generation of changemakers to be leaders in their own perspective, whether it’s in tech, finance, or arts, whatever it may be. All the things that allowed me to be the person I am today, I hope that we can provide the same resources and infrastructure to the next generation so they could thrive and meet their fullest potential.
MD: There is a chapter in your memoir where you recount your travels. You mentioned in specific that you resonated with the idea of “investing in people rather than soldiers” when you learned that Costa Rica did not have a standing army. Does this have any parallels to what Bloc Montréal and Mouvement Montréal stand for?
BH: Yeah, 100%. I was very reticent to include in the book the fact that I distributed marijuana when I was younger. But the reason why I decided to put that in was because it shows that through investing in coaches, sports centers, mentors, and teachers, a productive member of society is able to influence society in a positive way. It’s proof that if we actually go into these neighbourhoods and provide quality services to people, to youth, that great things can come from that. And still, we continue to fight dejected youth with handcuffs as opposed to giving them pens, computers, and footballs.
So imagine if that police officer, when he handcuffed me because I was smoking marijuana, gave me a criminal record and wrote me up — my whole life would have been ruined. But a coach gave me a football, and a teacher gave me access to the computer lab at the University of Ottawa, and the rest is history. And it is my firm belief that the political class, whether it’s the municipal, provincial or federal government, understands very clearly what it would take to guide and instruct minority youth. The reason why there’s no support center in Montreal North, and I mentioned it quite often in the book, is not because there’s no money for the support centers. We live in a G7 country, we have the money. The reason why they don’t is because of explicit and implicit bias, prejudice, and hate towards these communities. For me, if there’s one point in the book that comes up time and time again, it’s that sports center that changed my life. And I think that similar opportunities can help a lot of kids in Montreal North.
MD: Is there anything you learned about yourself when writing this memoir?
BH: Well, it kind of reaffirmed within myself that if an individual, a party, or an institution is not going to offer me the same dignity as the next person, all hell will break loose. In my youth, all hell used to break loose with my fists. And that got transformed into a positive rebellion that is exemplified through community organization, politics, and law. But if I’m challenged, discriminated against, or disrespected, and I see that other people around me are experiencing similar things, we’ll all come together with proverbial pitchforks and torches, and we’ll come for you. And that’s what we’ve done. And we’ve turned it into a positive march. Empowered through my legal and educational training, that’s why I continue to be inspired.
MD: In leading this “positive rebellion,” did you feel like a political agitator when you entered the political scene?
BH: I didn’t talk a lot about this in the book, but I think that why we may have been seen as more agitators than we potentially should have been is because democracy is not open and equitable. We had to fight to get on debate stages. The Chamber of Commerce didn’t invite us on the debate stage. Culture Montreal didn’t invite us. Radio Canada, a public institution, didn’t invite us on the debate stage. Tout Le Monde En Parle didn’t invite us onto their show. When we would send out press releases on our economic policy, it wouldn’t get covered. When we sent out a press release on a cultural general policy, it wouldn’t get covered. The media was extremely biased and it was hard for us to pierce through the Coderre/Plante battle. That’s where this idea of “rebellion” came from.
So what we had to do, in which we probably looked more like agitators than we would like, is that we had to fight back against the media and give them content. That would actually make them publish it, as opposed to us being able on face value, just to publish our platform and to get news based on that. So, we were not there to just agitate, but we were there to get candidates elected.