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Putting an end to police impunity
written by Dana Wray | Photo by Shane Murphy

Anas Bennis, Claudio Castagnetta, Ben Matson, Quilem Registre, Gladys Tolley, and Fredy Villanueva share one thing in common: they were killed by police officers.

The families and friends of these six individuals had also all met significant legal and administrative roadblocks when they tried to seek answers for investigations they felt were biased or incomplete.

At the Forum Against Police Violence and Impunity in 2010, the families and friends of the six victims formed the Justice for the Victims of Police Killings Coalition to remember the victims, support the families, and seek “dignity, justice, and truth.”

For the past three years, the Coalition has held an annual march on October 22. According to their website, “the symbolic date of October 22 was subsequently chosen for a family-friendly event to commemorate the victims of police killings to coincide with the National Day of Protest in the United States organized by the October 22nd Coalition to Stop Police Brutality, Repression and the Criminalization of a Generation, which has been mobilizing every year since 1996.”

The Coalition also calls for an end to racial and social profiling by police. The widely publicized death of Fredy Villanueva in Montreal Nord in 2008 sparked riots over perceived racial profiling after the unarmed 18-year-old was shot three times while playing dice in a park.

At the Coalition’s vigil on October 22, 2011, Robyn Maynard, a social justice organizer in Montreal involved with the march, explained the problem of profiling.

“[Police brutality] happens to people who are socially profiled, people with mental health issues, people who are very poor, whose lives are not given as much value in our society. Those are the people who the police can kind of have impunity to kill because there are no repercussions,” Maynard said.

Julie Matson, one of the most outspoken activists in the Coalition, has experienced this firsthand. Despite evidence of severe beating by officers from the Vancouver Police Department, her father Ben Matson’s death in 2002 was declared accidental. According to the coroner, he choked on his own vomit because of the position he was left in by the police.

“Throughout the process of dealing with my dad’s death, from the initial investigation, through to the public inquest, I couldn’t ignore the blatant use of profiling, be it class, race or otherwise, and the continual upholding of systemic impunity and privilege that the police have,” Julie Matson wrote in a blog post on October 1, 2012.

Bridget Tolley is another outspoken member of the Coalition. She alleges that her mother, Gladys Tolley, was the victim of racial profiling as an Aboriginal woman. One October night in 2001, after visiting her daughter, Tolley walked across a two-lane highway to return home, and was fatally struck by a Sûreté du Québec (SQ) officer.

A string of instances of improper conduct immediately followed Gladys Tolley’s death. Bridget Tolley was shocked that the primary causes of death were listed in the police report as “negligence of a pedestrian” and “alcohol,” essentially absolving the police of responsibility and placing the blame on her mother’s shoulders.

Tolley has fought for her mother’s memory ever since. The first Sisters in Spirit vigil in 2006, held in honour of the more than 600 Indigenous women missing or murdered across Canada, was inspired by Gladys Tolley’s death.

In 2010, the Government of Quebec denied requests for an independent investigation into her death, leaving the family broken-hearted.

Internal inquiries rarely end with a guilty verdict. According to the Coalition, over sixty people have been killed by the police in Montreal since 1987, and 300 people have been seriously injured by the police in Montreal since 1989. Out of these cases, the Coalition asserts that only two officers were ever charged – and both were acquitted.

Across Canada, regulations regarding police abuse and illegitimate violence differ depending on the province. Additionally, there are no comprehensive statistics on police-related deaths in Canada.

The Coalition holds its annual marches and vigils not only to heal the families and to push for change, but also to raise public awareness about the issue. “If you look at us, we are all really normal people,” Julie Matson told the crowd at the second annual Coalition march and vigil. “This is the thing about this kind of violence, it affects everybody.”