A recent surge of community groups dedicated to fighting racial profiling and brutality conducted by the Service de Police de la Ville de Montréal (SPVM) and reinforced by the Montreal Police Brotherhood (MPB) is sending signals that community tolerance is running out.
Many have tried to obtain justice for the 2005 and 2008 deaths of two men of visible minorities – Anas Bennis and Freddy Villaneuva – at the hands of Montreal police officers. Some members of both affected communities feel they have yet to recieve restitution.
Three years in waiting
On Januray 29, Justice for Anas coalition will organize a display of courtroom solidarity as the Superior Court hears the how the MPB is blocking a coroner’s inquiry into the December 1, 2005 shooting of Anas Bennis, a 25-year-old Canadian of Moroccan origin. According to Samir Shaheen-Hussain, a member of coalition, Bennis was innocently exiting a mosque in Côte-des-Neiges when he was shot.
“The day Anas was killed there was extra police presence in Côte-Des-Neiges. Officers were there to bust a credit card fraud ring that was thought to have links to terrorism,” said Samir Shaheen-Hussain. Coming out of a mosque, bearded, and wearing a skullcap and djellabah, Anas was an obvious racial target.
According to police reports, Bennis allegedly tried to attack the police officers with a knife, but no concrete evidence has ever been produced in support of this allegation.
In June 2008, Quebec’s chief coroner, Louise Nolet, ordered an inquest to be carried out by Catherine Rudel-Tessier, originally set for September 29, 2008. But a month before it was set to begin, the MPB filed a legal motion to prevent the inquest, arguing that past investigations had made the necessary information public.
Bennis’s family remains unsatisfied, and is demanding that all reports and evidence be made public, along with an independent, public inquiry.
Community organizations were highly active following the death of Freddy Villanueva, an 18-year-old shot and killed by Constable Jean-Loup Lapointe on August 9, 2008, while playing a game of dice in Montreal North – illegal under a local by-law. A series of protests in the following weeks triggered a sharper police response and more security presence in the area.
According to Will Prosper, a spokesperson for Montreal Nord Republik (MNR), an organization formed in response to Villanueva’s death, the incident was another case of racial discrimination.
“This is a clear case of racial profiling,” said Prosper. “Freddy Villanueva wasn’t doing anything wrong, he was just peacefully playing a game of dice with his friends in the park when they were harassed by the police.”
In December 2008, the results from the case investigation exonerated both Constable Lapointe and his college Stéphanie Pilotte, declaring that Lapointe legitimately fired his weapon in self-defence. The report, undertaken by prosecutor François Brière on behalf of the Sûreté du Québec (SQ), a province-wide police force, was the only document made public, as details from witnesses and other victims remained confidential.
With Lapointe acquited, immigrant and refugee collective, No-One is Illegal, and the Coalition Against Police Repression and Abuse questioned the credibility of the investigation. They claimed that the investigation process had not been transparent, as promised by Public Security Minister Jacques Dupuis in August.
While Bennis’s case remains at an impasse, Dupuis has announced a public inquest into Villanueva’s case, slated for February 16. The inquiry will only provide details on the circumstances that led to Villaneuva’s death and make recommendations on how future incidents may be avoided.
Yet Prosper was excited about the rare opportunity to look at issues like racial profiling.
“The public inquiry that will be held in February is a big step for us; it is the first time in 24 years that a public inquest has been granted,” he said.
According to his mandate, the Quebec Court judge presiding over the inquest, Robert Sansfaçon, will not be able to press charges.
“The police are not going to admit that racial profiling exists, but all you need to do is look at the community and how it is affected to know that it exists,” said Prosper. He explained that one of the greatest challenges that organizations like MNR face is bringing the accountable police officers to justice.
While the deaths of Anas and Villanueva have received the most media attention, Montreal police have killed a total of 43 people since 1987, according to No One is Illegal, and allegedly mistreated hundreds more.
An International Woman’s Day demonstration in March of last year was violently broken up by police and other cases have been decried by groups such as the Black Community Association of Côte-des-Neiges, and Kabataang Montreal, a Filipino youth activist group part of the Canadian-Filipino Youth Alliance. Canada’s immigration legislature is also a source of contention, as some argue it has been used to target Muslims.
After an earlier Security Certificate law was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, a new law, Bill C-3, was passed in 2008, allowing the Canadian government to detain or deport non-citizens without granting them an official charge or trial. There are currently five Arab men – four of whom are refugees to Canada– being held under security certificates.
This practice directly violates an official statement on racial profiling published by the Commision des droits de la personne et de la jeunesse, which reads “it is particularly pertinent to consider racial profiling in the policies of a nation that is deeply concerned with anti-terrorist legislature.”
According to Shaheen-Hussain, these two separate issues point to larger racist structures at work in Canadian society.
“They stem from the same fountainhead of racial intolerance, xenophobia, and Islamophobia,” said Shaheen-Hussain . “ One, the security certificate law, is legislated while the other evokes popular institutionalization of the same racist perceptions that inform a legislated process. Two white men firing on a young Muslim man coming out of a mosque – it is hard to see this as anything but racist.”
Prosper added that the larger issue of racial profiling in Montreal was often ignored by the government, even though it’s recognized as an infringement of the right to equality under both the Canadian and Quebec charters of rights.
“In Montreal Nord, 40 per cent of families live below the poverty line, the unemployment rate of 16-24 -year-olds has grown by 61 per cent in the last couple of years, but the city isn’t doing anything to address these problems,” said Prosper. He criticized knee-jerk reactions to crime that resulted in an increase in police presence in certain neighbourhoods.
Institutionalizing street safety
In 2008, an increased police presence was institutionalized when Montreal police introduced the new ÉCLIPSE squad – a special team of police officers primarily designated to combat street gang violence.
According to Neil Castro, Secretary General of Kabataang, adding more gun-wielding officers to the streets has no positive impact on the lives of citizens.
“Instead of addressing the cultural needs, economic marginalization, and community issues that are driving young people onto the streets, the authorities just increase the police presence in the struggling neighbourhoods,” Castro said. “[It] causes direct and indirect harassment, random checks, and cases of actual brutality.”
Castro emphasized that these interactions are biased against youth.
“This kind of harassment and discrimination seriously affects its victims and it criminalizes our youth, especially those who are struggling to adjust to a new society and often have problems in education, with their families, the immigration process, and financial difficulties,” said Castro.
François du Canal, a spokesperson for the Collective Against Police Brutality (COBP) – a group that has mobilized various community groups, demonstrations, and awareness campaigns – explained that COBP is careful to identify various types of cultural profiling according to ethnicity and class.
“In the downtown area there is serious social profiling and cleansing. The police try to remove street people by giving them tons of tickets and, if they don’t comply, they are beaten,” Canal said, adding that political profiling of punks or anti-capitalist activists also comes into effect.
“The first thing to combatting police brutality and cultural profiling is to know your rights,” Canal said. “The police and the state comprise a very large system– if we fight as a collective we are stronger.”