Montreal’s 14th annual March Against Police Brutality will take place today. The event has gained special attention after the shooting of teenager Fredy Villanueva in 2007, an affair that shed light on both police brutality and the Montreal North neighbourhood.
Montreal North is one of the City’s most diverse boroughs; a third of its 82,000 citizens belong to a visible minority. It is also one of the poorest parts of Montreal: the neighbourhood’s average income is around $17,000 and 12.5 per cent of residents are unemployed – compared to 8.8 per cent in the rest of the city.
One of the central law enforcement issues in the borough is the national drug policy, which some claim affects poor and minority youth disproportionately.
Jaggi Singh, an activist with the Montreal immigrant advocacy organization No One Is Illegal, discussed both drug offenders and illegal gamblers, saying that the groups are disproportionately convicted in poor neighbourhoods – despite also existing in wealthier ones. He added that a police crackdown on a dice game in a park was the first incident leading to the shooting of Fredy Villanueva.
“There’s a whole double standard whereby youth of colour and other marginalized youth are targeted for minor drug offences while police turn a blind eye to middle class drug use, which is just as open and acknowledged,” Singh noted.
“What the criminalization of drugs does is provide a pretext for the police to practice both racial profiling and social profiling. There’s a clear phenomenon where prisons are full of youth of colour for minor drug offences, and it’s a cycle which the police help perpetuate,” he added.
According to Eugene Oscapella, a criminology professor at the University of Ottawa, policing and convicted drug offences are closely related, as law enforcement officials often exercise their own judgment in choosing whether to enforce drug laws.
“Police have enormous discretion in enforcing laws,” Oscapella said. “That’s part of the way the police operate in this country, and most Western countries. They’re subject to direction from above in the police force, but police as a body have enormous discretion. You could be smoking a joint in front of a police officer. Even if he busts you he may not charge you; he may just take your stuff away. So much of it depends on the local community,” he added.
He added that drug offenders are unfairly targeted in poor neighbourhoods as opposed to wealthy ones, because deals in neighbourhoods like Westmount are more likely to take place behind closed doors.
In recent years grassroots organizations such as Montreal Nord Republik have formed in response to increasing tensions between police and the neighbourhood.
Singh hoped that citizen pressure would eventually move the City’s police to change their behaviour.
“The Villaneuva case is the tip of the iceberg. It’s a microcosm of what happens on a daily basis. At least what we have in this situation is a coroner’s inquest. We’re seeing all the contradictions expose themselves,” said Singh.
“The Montreal police are notorious for their arrogance and their impunity and their ability to squirm out of any kind of accountability. But I feel that it’s through the strength of social movements that we can turn the tide,” Singh added.
The Service de police de la ville de Montréal were unavailable for comment.