Category Archives: Montréal Noire

Crise de confiance/ Crise de conscience

Notice the 'low-visibility' cruiser; is the SPVM out to protect us or wage war against Al-Qaeda?

This article was originally posted to Forget the Box, an independent Montreal-based media collective, which gave me an amazing opportunity to write for them. Check it out.

Last Monday two people were shot and killed by Montreal police. One was intermittently homeless and severely psychologically disturbed. The other was going to work, killed by the ricochet of one of 3-4 bullets fired by an SPVM constable. News updates pertinent to this story have been spotty and unfortunately eclipsed by F-1 weekend, and the key spokesperson for the SQ has been tight-lipped about how the investigation is proceeding. This week it came out that the constables involved were interviewed, albeit several days after the fact. The SQ had returned to the scene, indicating it was both unusual and not unusual simultaneously (I couldn’t help but think this was a ploy to use on the Anglo media, but I digress). Those involved, much like the deceased, were brought to CHUM St-Luc, where they were sequestered from the public. CCTV footage from UQAM is said to exonerate the constables as the mentally unstable Mario Hamel is said to have charged the constables with a knife, though this footage hasn’t been made public. And at the end of the day, the SPVM is once again embroiled in a scandal, the people of Montreal have a little less faith in law enforcement, and whatever seems obvious and factual in this case is muddled by collusion and potential conflicts of interest. Once again, the SPVM is investigated by the SQ, previously well known for the aborted siege of Kanehsatake and their propensity to send ‘agents-provocateurs’ into the fray at various anti-Capitalist demonstrations. Such is life in Montreal, and the regularity of this scenario has doubtless numbed the populace to the continuing problem of police brutality and excessive force. I’d like to think this was our quaint provincial problem, another element of badassery for a city high on street-cred; “don’t fuck with Montrealers, cuz they’ve been schooled by the Montreal fuzz” – that sort of thing – but there’s something about this particular case which stands out and has started affecting the way I think.

The word ‘tragedy’ has been artlessly applied by the few people available to speak openly about the case, such as the seemingly mal-informed Sureté public-relations hack. I suppose it is somewhat tragic, though in PR parlance ‘tragedy’ implies ‘accident’, and there’s nothing accidental about pulling the trigger of a ‘quick-action’ service pistol whilst aiming it at a man’s torso. Moreover, it can hardly be accidental when three or four shots are fired.

I can’t believe that there’s anything accidental about this shooting, when there are so many potential alternatives to using deadly force. I don’t mean to play armchair police-officer, and I still believe that the majority of law-enforcement in this country are regular people who work hard at their jobs and take themselves and their work with utmost seriousness. That being said, it increasingly looks to me as though we may have a law-enforcement problem in this country, one which is beginning to mimic the established law-enforcement problems south of forty-nine in terms of excessive force, though fortunately not yet in terms of frequency. For one, a security guard at the St-Luc hospital, which has its fair share of mentally and psychologically impaired visitors, told a local reporter they handle violent psychopaths and delusional schizophrenics with muscle, numbers, latex gloves and ‘talk-down techniques’. Hamel was well known in his circles, and had made some progress dealing with his mental health issues. That being said, when police approached him that fateful day, he was ripping open garbage bags and tossing their contents into the street. I can’t imagine how one could be a good cop and not know the curbside insane intimately, but apparently the constables involved in this fatal shooting saw him as a lethal threat and used, as they would describe it, appropriate force. Beyond the lethal threat, a maintenance man, Patrick Limoges, on his way to start an early morning shift. As he fell, nearby construction workers rushed to his aid, only to be dissuaded by gun-toting constables who warned them away from assisting the stricken man. It’s either for reasons of crime-scene control or because those involved weren’t sure which one was the threat. And either way I’m unimpressed.

We don’t need to dig up the growing list of innocent citizens killed by the SPVM for one reason or another over the years – it’s long and there’s a fairly accurate list online here at Flics Assassins. Nor do we need to contextualize this incident within the scope of post-9/11 public security planning, or even our country’s own sordid history of police brutality and misconduct – you can do your own research, and I know it will be worth your time. That said, what we ought to be focused on are some of the more basic elements of law-enforcement in this city, this province and country. For starters, are guns necessary in the first place? Could Mario Hamel have been stopped with a taser, a baton or pepper spray? If so, why were these weapons not employed instead? A few days after Hamel and Limoges were killed, SPVM constables responded to a distressed woman in Hochelaga-Maisonneuve similarly armed with a large knife; they tased her and that was that. Second, would regular neighbourhood foot patrols have helped police identify Hamel as fundamentally innocent, given his psychological problems? Would Hamel have felt as threatened if he recognized the intervening constables? Third, and this can go on for a while yet, is this an example of a good reaction time or of exceptionally bad judgement? Depends on who’s asking, and who cares to know. I hate to think someone breathed a sigh of relief when they discovered the victims of this ‘tragedy’ were homeless and a janitor, respectively.

I don’t want to fault the people who did the shooting as much as the system which put a gun in their hand in the first place. I want to blame the system that has flooded our city streets with poor unfortunates who require counseling and medication, but instead will die as anonymous corpses frozen to sidewalks. I want to know what changed our perspective; at what point did a cop go from being a civil-service employee, like a teacher, social-worker or mail-carrier, to someone who exists above and beyond the realm of normalcy – an individual who enforces laws, ostensibly for the public’s benefit, and yet doesn’t have to play by the same rules as the rest of us. Where’s my Police Brotherhood when I fuck up at work? Why can’t I take people’s cameras without reason? Why can’t I push people off the street with impunity? Why am I paying the salary, however indirectly, of the people who may one day kill or abuse me, perhaps tragically?

But the most disturbing question, after all that has been written about recent incidents of police brutality and misconduct, here in the 514 or elsewhere in Canada, is that the public is as paralyzed collectively as they are individually. We’ve become numb. We’ve become tolerant of yet another excess, but unlike apathy or deep-fried food, the excesses of law-enforcement, culminating in abuse and brutality as we’ve witnessed over the course of the last decade, will undoubtedly compromise our individual sovereignty. The people must act now before it’s too late, and though this nightmare scenario has ‘been done’ insofar as we’ve seen it manifest itself across the silver screen, it doesn’t mean we aren’t already in the process of losing our collective assurance to individual freedom. And freedom from needless death is pretty crucial – it’s one of the ‘pillars of difference’ that distinguishes our society from the dictatorships we precision-bomb.

And yet, here we are; on my short walk back from work the other day I passed five banks and a synagogue. Each had a security guard out front.

Milice patriotique du Québec wants to sell guns in HLM

Photo credit to Andrew Chung/ Toronto Star

So everyone’s favourite local militia wants to sell weapons in Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, as the local newspaper reported recently.

The MPQ runs a recruiting station there, which happens to double as the militia’s primary source of income – a military surplus store. Nothing illegal here; the group claims to be sovereignist and available to help ‘the people’ in a time of crisis, such as a natural disaster or in the event of an external attack. They also claim to be apolitical, and say they are present to respond to the will of the people.

Not the duly elected government mind you, the people is who they respond to.

Of course, it doesn’t seem as if the actual authorities, such as the Canadian Forces, the Sureté-du-Québec, the RCMP or the SPVM would be able to handle the kinds of emergencies they envisage. Perhaps they feel those organizations are not the true defenders of the people.

And the last time I checked, natural disaster training is very different from playing soldier out in the woods and firing paintballs at human targets. Just what exactly does this militia aim to prove, and who do they serve?

And why do they want to sell weapons in HLM?

I’m getting uneasy.

Here’s why. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, scores of private militias, gun-clubs, survivalist groups and a host of other really shady pseudo-military, pseudo-law-enforcement organizations began patrolling the streets of New Orleans. They shot ‘looters’ indiscriminately, as they were paid by wealthy locals to guard gated-communities and to protect the wealthy whites from the blacks of New Orleans. As we all know, the lives oft he privileged whites have returned to normal. Better than before some say, as signs popped up around New Orleans proclaiming that ‘we are taking our city back’. The ‘we’ in the case of New Orleans are the wealthy, exploitative white minority.

This would likely not have occured if President Bush had handled Katrina properly, such as by deploying troops, national guard and FEMA immediately. It also didn’t help that the NOPD actually called on various local militias to assist in keeping order in the immediate aftermath. See this article to read more on the horrifying human rights abuses in post-Katrina New Orleans.

Time to ask ourselves whether, as a society, we have enough faith in our own security forces or whether we feel it is appropriate to have parallel powers which could respond to any ‘catastrophe’ (as they define it) based on the demands of the ‘people’ (which could be whomever they choose). It’s kind of like a synagogue in the West Island that happens to employ guards to protect the building and patrol the grounds, even though they’ve never been threatened with vandalism or violence, and the local police would be able to handle any potential problem with considerably more efficiency than unarmed rent-a-cops. Or is it nothing but smoke and mirrors?

As always i want to hear from you? What will the people do about the MPQ?

Guns and Roses – a brief history of violence

Gazette(?) photo from the 2010 Anti-Police Brutality Demo, our annual headbashing festival

Another week, another round of cops killing unarmed, though ostensibly dangerous people. Three incidents in three weeks in which Montréal police discharged their weapons, resulting in two deaths. First, January 26th in Rosemont, then on Feb. 7th, in Beaconsfield, and again on Feb. 16th in CDN (see the view from Toronto); just a reminder – today is the 21st. Underlying these recent incidents is a long history of Montréal police brutality and several high-profile cases of lethal-force under questionable circumstances. The Villanueva Case has cast a long shadow, and the SPVM’s participation in last June’s G20 Conference in Toronto hasn’t done much to improve their public image. What’s worse is the Québec law which has cops investigating other cops – which means the SQ investigates the SPVM almost exclusively. It may seem as though Montréal has a high crime rate; the recent series of arson attacks and the still unsolved murder of local artist (and I’m proud to say I met him, he was a decent guy) Bad News Brown will only add fuel to fire come election time. As our belligerent and autocratic dictator Stephen Harper warns the people crime is spiraling out of control, he may be able to dupe more people than just Gilles Duceppe to follow him on an bogus anti-crime crusade. It’s great fodder for the electorate, as the Willie Horton Scandal demonstrated so clearly.

What may not be immediately apparent is that Montréal’s homicide rate, as an example, is comparatively low for a major North American city, and its been dropping too, hovering around 35 per year for the last few years. Gang violence, by contrast is supposedly rising. ‘Gang violence’ seems like a meaningless term to me because its so vague, but it hits home – especially in the middle and upper class suburbs, where the very idea of gangs operating nearby may translate into lost property value. Note as well, it seems as though every ‘gang member’ arrested in this city is either from Montréal North or Little Burgundy. I didn’t realize the gangs were as territorial as Hipsters. That aside, come election time, whether Provincially or Federally, the conservative elements in our society are going to push for a tough-on-crime agenda. Harper’s made it clear, he wants more cops and more prisons, and the mayor’s of major cities will want to get in on the spending spree. More cops with more guns – a quantity over quality situation develops and suddenly our homicide and ‘gang-violence’ rates will both skyrocket. Why? The Gangs and the Police are locked in an interminable war, and when you break it down, there are roughly the same number of major police forces as major gangs and organized crime syndicates. The police ultimately have the advantage, not because they appeal to the people, but because they operate as a singular force.

The level of collusion, corruption and inherent indiscipline in the SPVM, coupled with the very real possibility of fear-vote driven police expansion, could lead to many more examples of excessive force here in Montréal. This in turn will only cause the gangs to swell their numbers and increase the total number of firearms in the city. Getting-tough-on-crime legislation never works, because it generally only leads to more violence and death. Consider the LAPD’s approach to crime fighting in the 1980s and 1990s, when the CRASH Unit was unleashed to combat LA’s street gangs, and the Rampart Scandal demonstrated how quickly such units degenerate into unscrupulous corruption and outrageous abuse. When the police are seen by the people to be as bad or worse than the people they’re tasked to control, society breaks down in a big way. This is what happens when a police force decides to take an almost universally aggressive approach to fighting crime – eventually, the chronic stress will cause the people to go crazy en masse. Think winning the quarter-final against Boston is bad, check this out:

Over the weekend my cousin proposed an interesting solution to the recent spate of cop-shootings. He suggested that the Montréal police adopt a system pairing a rookie cop with a veteran cop and divide the weapons between them, so that the elder, more experienced constable would have the use of a handgun. The rationale being that an inexperienced cop may be more inclined to panic and use excessive force. I concur with the point on youthful inexperience serving as root cause for panic leading to the deadly use of a firearm, as demonstrated not only recently, but in the case of the Villanueva Shooting as well. However, a key element in an experienced officer’s more prudent use of a firearm is almost entirely dependent on their years carrying one. I would hope that a retiring constable would take immense pride and satisfaction in knowing they had never once used their weapon, and that they would be appropriately recognized for doing so. My cousin suggested 35 as the age in which SPVM officers would be allowed to carry firearms, though I can’t help but think there would be an “initial-use giddiness” regardless of age.

What if we were to adopt a more British style of policing? Specifically, I’m referring to the limited use of police firearms in a society in which firearms are already highly restricted. Increasing the penalty related to firearms offenses within the metropolitan area, coupled with a new policy which disarmed the majority of local police and placed a new focus on community relations (ie, by re-introducing paired pedestrian patrols), could have dramatic effects on reducing violent gun deaths and excessive force. Ideally two fit police officers, trained in hand-to-hand combat and equipped with mace, batons and hand-cuffs could operate just as effectively as the armed patrols we have today; how often do they really need their weapons? Armed officers in the UK are in the minority when compared to the entire police apparatus, and they are trained to exercise extreme caution in the use of deadly force. The UK has one of the world’s lowest gun-homicide rates in the world.

Unfortunately for us locals, we have a history of gun violence that begs the question as to just how well trained the SPVM actually is. The 1987 police killing of Anthony Griffin is still fresh in the mind of Montréal’s black community, while the 1991 killing of Marcellus Francois re-enforced the perception that the SPVM was careless, incompetent, or both. Things haven’t gotten much better vis-a-vis the SPVM’s use of excessive force since then, as the “flics-assassins” watchdog blog attests. Consider as well this 1995 New York Times article on being young and black in Québec.

The SPVM isn’t aggressive with immigrants and minorities uniquely, though calls of racial profiling are regular. The generally aggressive attitude of our police force is best defined by the extent to which one officer went during his career as principle SPVM enforcer. This is the infamous case of “Shotgun” Bob Menard, a Montréal police constable and undercover officer who is rumoured to have killed between 10 and 15 people while on the job, at least once with an assault rifle of his own choosing. It should be noted that Menard was initially responsible for taking down bordellos, gambling dens and gangs, but then progressed to neutralizing a mafia don and then finishing his career blasting away at bank robbers. At around the same time, the SPVM ‘morality squad’ was responsible for the Sex Garage Raid and subsequent police brutality which ultimately culminated in the unit’s partial disbandment, firings and a new policy towards peaceful protests. Still though, seems like a constant two-steps forward, one-step back.

There are many, many more examples of extreme force used by the Montréal police, and after these recent events, we as a society need to ask whether policing is working locally. Can it be improved? Can disarming a portion of the force and integrating police back into the community they serve lower the rate of violent gun deaths and reverse this terrible trend? Is it wise to have a police force which seems to be increasingly racially, economically and psychologically separated from the people they are supposed to serve?

This is an issue for all citizens in a society, and it must be taken very seriously. I would personally advocate for significantly fewer armed officers and stricter control of illicit weapons, increased community presence, mandatory urbanisation and diversification of the force and a substantial investment in surveillance, communications and intelligence sharing between different levels of law-enforcement. But most of all, police must be accountable to a civilian oversight committee charged with determining whether lethal force was justified in a case by case basis, with stiff penalties, up to and including prosecution should such a panel rule in favour of the victim.

We must take control of crime by controlling our fear, controlling inequity – we must never live under the constant stress present in a society in which the line between criminals and law enforcement is blurred into non-existence. We can’t allow anything remotely resembling the 1992 Riots to happen here, and it scares me to think how the situations may be more comparable than most would think. Los Angeles re-bounded successfully – would we be as lucky? Or is ours a fate worse than Detroit, Baltimore or New Orleans?

My favourite alleyway

Slate Reflection - work of the author, January 2011

Alleyway south of Boul. de Maisonneuve, leading to the back of Carlos & Pepe’s on Peel Street. Though frequently malodorous due to the subtle mix of urine and rotting vegetables, I’m nonetheless drawn to this space, as its design cleverly seems forbidding at first, yet with the CIBC Building towering overhead, pulls you down into its bowels. And just when the alleyway seems to have sucked you in, it opens up into kind of accidental courtyard with the CIBC Building having tapered away completely.

Behind the Hermes Building

I’ve wanted to film some sort of daring escape in this alleyway since the first time I explored it. Seems very Se7en-esque.

The Mengele of Montréal

This guy is Donald Ewen Cameron, a Scotch-American who, each week from 1957 to 1964, commuted from Vermont to Montréal, where he performed mind-control experiments at the Allan Memorial Institute. Cameron performed his experiments at the behest of the CIA though he also received funding from the federal government, taking otherwise normal people suffering from minor mental health issues, such as depression, and using them as human guinea-pigs. Among other things, the infamous doctor, well-known for his ideas that schizophrenics could be ‘re-programmed’, induced his unsuspecting subjects into comas while playing tapes on loop. Patients were subjected to noise, commands and excessive doses of LSD; when they awoke, they were all permanently disabled.

Allan Memorial Institute - work of the author, Winter 2008

It’s difficult for me to consider this event and not immediately think of the Duplessis Orphans and the insane asylum out in the East End that used to be its own city. Curiously, a few years back some unmarked graves were found at the former Cité de St-Jean-de-Dieu Insane Asylum. I haven’t heard of any follow-up to the demand that autopsies be performed, but the allegation is that Duplessis Orphans may have been used for medical experimentation as well.

When you consider the context of the Quiet Revolution, remember the Duplessis Orphans and Ewen Cameron as examples of what crimes can be committed against a people held in bondage by the collusion of the Roman Catholic Church and an autocratic political regime. Have those responsible actually paid for their crimes? Will we ever finalize the break and seek to resuscitate our efforts at achieving true individual sovereignty for the people of Québec? I think the CIA, the Fed, the Province and the Church still owe us a lot of money for what they’ve subjected our people to. And I still want answers to this.

Montréal’s Stonewall – Hard to imagine it was only twenty years ago…

On one of those insufferably hot July nights back in 1990, about 40 cops arrested 9 out of 400 party-goers after they raided a loft party. That those in attendance were homosexuals shouldn’t have made any difference, but ultimately it did, and the event is comparable to the Stonewall riots, though with a distinctively Montréal character. Those arrested, for the most part, ended up in the Montréal General Hospital, along with many more savagely beaten by SPVM officers. The cops stroked their batons in mock masturbation while the crowd was dispersed towards Beaver Hall Hill. What they didn’t realize was that they were completely surrounded, and the constables had quite illegally removed their identification. They were looking for a fight. Linda Dawn Hammond was on the scene taking photographs of the party when she became directly involved, chronicling the brutality and capturing the photographs which would run on the front pages of the Gazette and La Presse the very next day. It seems as though 1990 was a watershed year for police brutality against citizens of Montréal; thankfully it seems as though it was one of the last.

Richard Burnett gives a clear insight into the way by which the Sex Garage Incident forever changed gay politics in Canada, let alone Montréal, now a premier gay-tourism destination. Twenty years after one of the most horrific examples of police brutality, the annual Diver/Cité festival is estimated to generate about $40 million in revenue and economic spin-offs for the City of Montréal. How times have changed. Unfortunately, it would take another round of protests and beatings before the Chief of the SPVM decided to take action. Among other decisions, the police would scale down its anti-gay crusade, and harassment of gay men on Mount Royal was put on the back-burner while the police morality squad re-focused their energies. Also, two days after the incident, the SPVM promised they’d no longer attack peaceful protesters.

I’m still not convinced about that last point, but it’s good to know that events like Sex Garage aren’t going to happen again in this city. That is, as long as the citizens ensure the protection of their own fundamental human rights.