Putting systemic racism on the map in Quebec

Amnesty International literally—albeit briefly—put the issue of systemic racism on the map in Quebec this week as part of its ongoing efforts to get Premier François Legault’s government to recognize that the problem exists in the province.

In response to the government’s continued insistence that there is no systemic racism in Quebec, Amnesty and agency partner Taxi Montreal created a fake location named “Systemic Racism” and placed it across from the provincial legislature in Quebec City on Google Maps. The agency described it as “a place that should not exist.”

“We wanted the issue to be in [Legault’s] back yard and make sure he has eyes on it,” said Taxi’s creative director, Alexis Caron-Côté. “The main goal is to make sure the government acknowledges that [systemic racism] exists. They’re saying it’s a few bad apples, but it’s not a few bad apples that [contribute] to Black people earning less money. It’s part of the system.” Taxi also made the GPS location available on both Instagram and Facebook in order to boost the campaign’s reach.

Google Maps users were also given the option to rate and comment on the “business” represented by the marker. Caron-Côté said that about 150 people reviewed and commented before the marker was removed from the app sometime on Thursday evening, less than three days after it went live.

Caron-Côté said they expected Google to take action, but were surprised it happened so quickly. “We thought it would take a bit longer than that, but for us it exemplifies the issue,” he said. “It was a really important issue for us, and to be taken down like that [felt] like repression.” The agency is currently working on a response to the takedown, he said.

The agency expected to hear from Google’s lawyers, but have not been contacted, said Caron-Côté. “We thought it would come at some point, but nothing yet.” Google did not respond to The Message‘s request for comment.

The Taxi creative team had initially approached the tech giant about creating a “Systemic Racism” marker together, but didn’t receive a response. That led to the agency’s “hacking” the map application.

While Google does permit users to add missing places in Google Maps, Caron-Côté said that the Taxi team’s attempts to create places bearing names like, for example, “Systemic Racism” and “Police Brutality” were flagged and rejected. The team tried “a ton of ways in,” over several months, he said.

The solution was the fake business, with the Taxi team using map coordinates to change its geo-location to the Parc de l’Esplanade, across from the provincial legislature. “There were a lot of [workarounds],” said Caron-Côté.

Taxi also used Google Maps code to create a hub for the business that resembled those users would find for other businesses within the app. In addition to a business description (“non-profit organization”), hours and contact information (a link to the Amnesty International website), Taxi created photos that included people of colour being subjected to harsh treatment by police, and a woman wearing a T-shirt reading “Justice pour Joyce,” a reference to Joyce Echaquan, the Indigenous woman who was abused by staff at a Montreal hospital, where she later died. The agency also added facts about systemic racism in the province.

The initiative did receive some mainstream media coverage from daily newspapers 24 heures and Le Devoir, as well as the TVA morning show Salut Bonjour.

This is not the first time Amnesty International has used bold advertising to tackle the issue of systemic racism in the province. In 2020, it created a pair of pre-roll videos featuring people of colour—one a man applying for an apartment, the other a woman applying for a job—asking viewers not to skip the ad, before going to explain how it feels to not be given the same opportunities as caucasians because of how they look.

Chris Powell