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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

What to make of the Montreal North riots?

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Montreal is no stranger to riots. Over the course of its history, it has seen political riots, sports riots, nationalist riots and punk riots. From 1844 to 1849, Montreal was the capital of a united Canada, but imperial authorities stripped it of that status after rioters (most of them conservatives angry over the supposedly light punishment given to the 1838/39 rebels) trashed and burned down the colonial parliament. A little over a century later, Montrealers angry over the suspension of Maurice Richard left Ste. Catherine St. in tatters; the Richard Riot, as it was known, signalled the dawn of the nationalist era in Quebec life and politics. More recently, hockey fans and hooligans smashed windows and burned cars downtown after the Canadiens won the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

So what about Sunday night’s riot in Montreal North, then? It isn’t the first time mobs of angry people have burned cars and looted shops, but somehow it seems distinct from Montreal’s other riots. Maybe it’s the undercurrent of racial tension that seemed to run through the destruction. All riots start with a public united by a sense of injustice; in this case, it was frustration and anger directed against a police force and municipal authorities that seem to treat Montreal’s minorities — and in particular, blacks, Latinos and Arabs — with contempt, suspicion and, at times, violence.

Saturday’s police shooting of an unarmed 18-year-old, Fredy Villanueva, seemed all too familiar to those Montrealers who still remember other incidents in which a police officer, for reasons that are never made clear, has killed a man of colour. Most recently, in 2005, Mohamed Anas Bennis was shot when he passed by an unrelated police investigation in Côte des Neiges. (Police claim that Bennis stabbed an officer, but evidence of this has never been made public.) All told, an average of 20 civilians die every year in police custody, many of them in rather shady circumstances. Whether police behaviour in these instances was justified or not, the reticence of the police to fully explain them has angered many Montrealers. Combined with the often-strained everyday interactions between police and people in neighbourhoods like Montreal North, it creates a toxic atmosphere that can easily ignite.

The Montreal North riot has provoked inevitable comparisons with similar riots in Paris and Los Angeles. In both cases, it was a police action that provoked intense violence, vandalism and looting; the comparison becomes a bit strained when you realize that what happened in Montreal North was far less severe than the complete breakdown of civil order that took place, over the course of several days, in Paris’ northern suburbs and central Los Angeles. Still, it’s clear that there is a problem in Montreal, and the first step is to figure out how things went so wrong in the first place. That means looking closely at why Fredy Villaneuva ended up dead on Saturday, but it also means addressing the much broader social and economic problems that plague many of Montreal’s minority communities.

There is plenty of history to learn from. Studies of many American cities point to poor community-police relations, political exclusion, housing, rapid demographic change and unemployment and poverty as the chief causes behind the 1960s race riots. All of these factors are present in neighbourhoods like Montreal North, a traditionally working-class suburb that has seen a large influx of immigrants from Haiti and Latin America over the past two decades. In the past, Montreal North was notoriously corrupt, and relations between police and the community have always been tense, even before the growth of its non-white and immigrant populations. These days, it is plagued by street gangs that have had great success in recruiting young men who face dire prospects in schools and the job market. Police will have a hard time preventing recruitment when they have such little credibility.

Montreal would seem to have its work cut out for it, but in reality it is doing very little to solve any of these problems. In yesterday’s Gazette, columnist Henry Aubin excoriated the municipal and provincial governments for ignoring the appallingly high unemployment rate among young Montrealers born in Latin American and the Caribbean, and for having such a flimsy record of minority hiring. Just 5.6 percent of Montreal’s police officers and 0.5 percent of its firefighters are non-white. Moreover, the city and province seem reluctant to establish an impartial panel to look into Villanueva’s death, choosing instead to put Quebec’s public security ministry in charge of investigating the shooting.

All riots start for a reason. Beneath the surface of empty violence and opportunistic looting, there is always something more substantial, a deeper problem. Left alone, it will continue to fester, and I wouldn’t want to wait to see what happens if that remains the case.



  1. If you ask me, we ought to disassemble our police forces (the RCMP too) completely and rebuild them from the ground up. I’m getting tired of hearing about needless violence and death! Not to mention the harassment of ordinary citizens for usually no real reason. We’ve got a serious problem with the collective attitudes of our police forces, and “sensitivity training” is really just a band-aid. What we need are cops who aren’t fiercely stupid power-tripping mouth-breathers (and/or racists). People who take the responsibility they have to the community and to the social order seriously. Who can respond intelligently in a tense situation, and who view the use of force as a last resort.

  2. Thank you for raising this. I’m dismayed, though not surprised, at the way the story is playing out.

    The person the police were trying to question has a criminal record of violent crime, including an armed robbery arrest. As I understand it, the terms of his bail required him to NOT associate with certain individuals and the police had ample reason to suspect that he was breaking those very conditions when they tried to speak to him.

    If police are discouraged or cowed into not informing our laws, then all peaceful citizens, regardless of colour or background, including Tux, will be much less safe.

    Yes, the shooting must be investigated. You don’t swarm cops and try to take their guns — if that is indeed what happened. We’ll see.

    In the meantime, support the police. They’re trying to make your neighbourhood safe from gangs and criminals — indeed, from the very destruction you saw following the shooting.

    It is, as the saying goes, a dirty job but somebody’s got to do it. And if they stop, god help us.

  3. Hey Shawn,

    I’m not saying that the law shouldn’t be enforced. I AM saying there’s something wrong with shots being fired at unarmed people. Maybe pepper spray or a taser might have been a more appropriate response? Maybe even a good old fashioned beating. I recognize there are times where the use of force is the only option. But a teenager shot to death with nary a cop injured? (Well okay, one got shot in the leg during the riots) There is something wrong there.

    Right now, I don’t feel protected, I feel nervous whenever I’m anywhere near police. Unlike you, I feel fairly confident that the threat of police violence/imprisonment is not the only thing keeping the peace in our society. I believe that most people just want to live their lives without harming others, I think we are mostly responsible for the conditions which create criminals, and I think that even the good police officers are at best treating the symptoms and not the disease. How many thousands of drug busts have we had in Canada? Has it stopped the drug trade? Will it ever? No. It’s the same thing with gangs. Put ’em in jail, more pop up. We’re looking at problems that blueshirts with guns aren’t going to come anywhere NEAR solving.

    What we need is reforms. Huge government reforms that’ll never happen unless we as citizens stand up and say this kind of thing is not okay.

    As for your “support the police” comment Shawn, that is exactly the kind of thinking that will get us in trouble. I support justice. The police need to earn our support, and shooting teens and tasering bedridden old men ( isn’t really doing it for me. It may be a dirty job, but the people performing it should stay clean. If they can’t, they shouldn’t do the job.

  4. Tux, I agree I mis-spoke when I wrote “support the police.” You’re right, supporting justice would be better way to go.

    Your implication that STM cops are “fiercely stupid power-tripping mouth-breathers (and/or racists)” threw me for a loop, though.

  5. part of the problem as i see it is —
    terrible true community representation on the police force. in toronto, or even ottawa, you see black and asian cops in at least comparable numbers to their percentage of the real population. granted, we have all noticed a major surge in women cops here in montreal. but still it is quite rare to see a non pur laine cop. i have seen like two black cops here. and never met an anglo cop yet. what does that say to jamaican communties like in ndg around walkley etc…
    well, in my take it only stregnthens the them against us mentality.
    so i ask, what steps are the MUC really, and i mean really taking to make god damned sure that they come even mildly close to reflecting the community they serve. that to me is a sizeable part of the problem.
    i ask you to pose that question to the MUC. see what they say, are they even aware of their ridiculously abismal hiring record in this regard?

  6. I don’t think the color of a cop makes any difference first of all.
    Then, as Shawn said, the person the police were trying to question has a criminal record of violent crime, including an armed robbery arrest. So what do you expect? that the police just go and have a coffee with him trying to chat and offer him psicological help while he is already a criminal at 18 years old? I am very sorry, but I support the police. I personaly think they do a good job in general and thanks to them we have one of the safest cities in the world to live in.
    By the way, why is a 18 yearl old already a thieft while he could be working in Mc Donalds or Tim Hortons making a decent salary to help the family? Don’t forget that cops risk their lives for us. And I don’t know why but when a cop dies, he/she was doing his job… but a civilian with a criminal record dies and we question the police actions.

  7. Fredy Villanueva, the 18-year-old, did not have a criminal record. It was his older brother that the police questioned and detained.

  8. Hey Shawn,

    When I said fiercely stupid power-tripping mouth-breathers (and/or racists) I was referring to regular cops, not STM ones, though I don’t have a very high opinion of the regular cops who work the metro stations either, fare fraud is not a serious enough crime to warrant a deployment of police on that scale, and I find the way they stand in front of the turnstiles (in the way of foot traffic) and glare at everyone going by a bit annoying. That’s neither here nor there.

    In any case, I’m not referring to all cops, I know there are good ones. My comment expresses my personal dislike of cops (I’ve never met a single one that was able to do the job politely and respectfully) as well as to illustrate some of the problems that we have. Racism is demonstrably a problem in our police force, and in my own experience, so is the casual misuse of authority. I believe that a racist person is pretty much automatically fiercely stupid, and as for being mouth-breathers… well, I was just being mean. :)

    Let me relate something that happened to me yesterday to illustrate my problem with the cops.

    As I waited for the bus, a cop pulled a lady over to the side of the road for some violation or another (I didn’t see what she did) and as they were parked there, I was listening to music and playing with my cell phone’s address book. Next thing I know this cop is in my personal space, yelling at me asking if I’m deaf (no, I have headphones on you douche) and telling me not to take pictures while he’s doing his job. I explained that I wasn’t taking pictures, and showed him that I had my address book open. He then told me I should turn around and look the other way! Instead of obeying him I put my phone away and stood there, and that seemed to be enough for him though he kept looking back at me from his car until my bus actually arrived. You know what he should have done? First, approached me respectfully, a tap on the shoulder from an arm’s-length distance is respectful. Not standing 6 inches away and yelling. Second, he should have asked me if I was taking pictures, not immediately assumed that I was. Third, even if I had been taking pictures it was a routine traffic stop and what exactly do you have to hide Mr. Policeman? They think they can be assholes ’cause they wear a badge, and that kind of thinking can get all kinds of conflated in a tense situation. I think it’s a serious problem. Having an immediate rage response to a 20-something with a cel-phone pointed in your direction is incorrect behaviour. They give this guy a gun? The ability to deprive people of their freedom? Call me a hippie, I think there’s something wrong with that. I don’t know what exactly causes it, but I suspect it’s a lack of accountability (cops routinely get away with shit worse than this and they shouldn’t), a macho/group mentality created and reinforced at the police station, and sure, maybe a nice heaping dose of job stress, but if you can’t take the heat get out of the kitchen. I think maybe they should change their hiring practices. Get some people who can keep their cool under pressure. Who don’t go for the gun or the baton as soon as things get hairy. I don’t have the solution. I like to complain but I don’t see an easy or immediate way of making things better, but speaking as a programmer by profession, when you have a system that’s fundamentally broken, that doesn’t work and isn’t fixable… you replace it/rebuild it. Maybe try a new architecture. Like I said, sensitivity training isn’t going to do anything about the problem of people getting killed by cops who ought not to have been. We need something more. Something new.

    Well this got ranty. I’ll end it here. Shawn, thanks for keeping me honest. :)

  9. You know, just on the narrow issue of fare fraud and the deployment of metro cops at turnstiles, Gladwell’s The Tipping Point takes a fascinating look at how stopping turnstile jumping alone led a major decrease in criminality and violence in the NYC subway. Admittedly, the situation facing Giuliani was much, much worse.

  10. Le problème c’est pas les policiers mais se situe plus haut dans la chaine de commande.
    Et c’était clair durant les émeutes, pourquoi la police n’a rien fait? Parce qu’on lui a donné l’ordre de ne rien faire.

  11. I have a question: when is the last time anyone’s seen a cop over 30?

    Personally, I think this is part of the problem. The hiring sweep of the last few years has left us with baby-faced immature police officers who are (i) afraid, (ii) incapable of mature social interaction, (iii) inexperienced. Not to mentioned, probably weaned on violent video games.

    That’s my theory to the barrage taser usage (and killings) and shootings like this. As Tux said, a simple “tap of the shoulder” is often replaced by in-your-face aggression. Of course, cops face situations of violence every day, but many times they could better control them with maturity and wisdom. Something many of them won’t likely have for another 20 years. We’re screwed in the meantime.

  12. This is ridiculous! I think it’s deplorable that everyone is so quick to judge and convict this police officer! These are the men and women who risk their lives everyday to maintain order and upkeep the laws we have all agreed to and voted for. In a time when police officers are getting shot and killed, murderers are getting off free, it’s understandable that the cops are a bit on edge!I doubt very much that Fredy, his brother and their friends were merely playing an innocent game of dice in the park Sunday night. What were these people doing loitering in a park at 12am at night? At that time Sunday night I was sleeping because I have to wake up at 5am for work! And to top it off we are being told that the tension is so high in these neighborhoods that adding extra police force is a bad idea?? I say we triple it!. People are saying the police are being racist and there’s a lot of racial profiling going on… well people, I think it’s time to face facts. The reality is that in neighbourhoods that have primarily minorities ie: Montreal North, little burgundy, lasalle…the crime rates sky rocket. I for one, was born and raised in Montreal but you wont catch me dead going anywhere near those neighborhoods at night. Forget it.

  13. Iena, your comment reeks of racism.

    12 am is a perfectly normal time for people 18 or 22 to be hanging out. Don’t you remember when you were young?

    There have been lots of tough francophone or anglophone neighbourhoods too; Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, the Point, Verdun. And criminal gangs there too, recruiting youth.

    I knew good, law-abiding working-class people in Hochelaga complaining about neighbourhood gangs recruiting local youth.

    Nobody here is supporting gang violence.

    But racism is a cancer.

    (As for the person who said people at McShit earned a “decent salary”, I guess that is another issue)…

  14. This is just the beginning of what’s to come. It is one thing to protest but loot, burn and destroy everything in sight is completely wrong. The biggest problem I see with immigrants is the lack of assimilation. Everyone speaks of diversity like we’re all supposed to change the way we live because of immigrants. The only true way is to assimilate.

  15. “Leila: (…)probably weaned on violent video games. ”

    C’est n’importe quoi ce commentaire là! Comme si un jeu allait rendre les gens violents, les romains assitaient à des combats de gladiateurs et y’a même pas 100 ans de ça, les éxécutions étaient publiques. Personne n’est devenu un tueur fou à cause de ça.

    Personnellement, je me dis que si la police a tiré, il y avait une bonne raison sur le moment, personne ne tire sur un innocent, surtout pas un policier formé pour maintenir l’ordre.

  16. Maria,

    I’m not racist. Although I am “white” I have black, chinese and arabic people in my family. 12am is NOT a normal time for 18 yr olds to be in a park. Thats called loitering. At 18, I was in bed at that time because I had school the next day. And I’m 23. I certainly remember what it was like when I was 18! I lived in Verdun and in The Point. Now I live in the suburbs but I still have friends living in those neighborhoods and I’m not afraid to walk to the metro in Verdun late at night. Either way, my blog wasnt about being black or white. It’s about how sick it makes me that people arent supporting the men and women on our police force. And what do you know? I was right. We found out last night that the police woman was being attacked by these “innocent 18yr olds playing dice in the park”

  17. Oh and I have to add…the fact that there are less minority police officers has more to do with the fact that there are less many moniority students willing to become police officers. Obviously in that case it’s only natural there would be more “white” cops in Montreal.

  18. Very ignorant comments in this thread. A couple of things.

    1)Police make mistakes. Anybody in a position of authority is always on the edge, and the line is thin. If it would have been me, I would have tackled the kid instead of shooting, unless I was threatened directly with a firearm.

    2)The problem of decreasing crime rate is a complicated one. Giulianni achieved it but through harrasment and other aggressive methods (ask anybody who lived in the projects during those times).

    3)It is not easy for a youth who grew up in a such a neighborhood to suddenly switch outlooks and become more like your visions of law-abiding citizens. You probably had your whole youth to make you what you are today. These kids grow up in an environment so very different from yours. It’s not like turning a switch on and off. (I cant believe I have to explain this).

    Anyway. good post chris!

  19. In response to:

    “It is not easy for a youth who grew up in a such a neighborhood to suddenly switch outlooks and become more like your visions of law-abiding citizens.”

    I grew up in Verdun/Point St Charles area. I have many friends who were brought up there and still live there, they dont act like that. I certainly dont behave or ever behaved that way. I’ts not were you live, it’s how your brought up to live. These parents have absolutely no control over their children. These teenagers and young adults know what is required of them, they know the law. There’s no excuse for what is happening. We are in Canada. There are many after school programs and social workers and sports teams in and around Montreal at these parents disposal, free of charge. No reason to leave a child alone in the ghetto to fend for themselves and be made prey to these gangs.

    Then you go on to say: “If it would have been me, I would have tackled the kid instead of shooting, unless I was threatened directly with a firearm.”

    You think so? You’re surrounded by a gang far outnumbering you and your partner, your partner is in a headlock. You have warned these people many times to back off… They were mosty likely armed themselves…Sorry, at this point there is no reason to believe your life and the life of your partner (who is being attacked at this point) is not in danger.

  20. Hugo: I agree, but it only really seems to be Lena’s comments that wreak of ignorance.

    Don’t mean to be personal Lena, but this is an important discussion to have and it shouldn’t be loaded with really off-base assumptions.

  21. Please clarify what you consider to be ignorant in what I said?

  22. This, lena:

    quote: “well people, I think it’s time to face facts. The reality is that in neighbourhoods that have primarily minorities ie: Montreal North, little burgundy, lasalle…the crime rates sky rocket. I for one, was born and raised in Montreal but you wont catch me dead going anywhere near those neighborhoods at night. Forget it.”

    First of all, since you are writing in English I suspect that you may well be a minority in Québec (though of course perhaps not). Secondly, there are some – less hard-up – neighbourhoods with a high “minority” presence that do NOT have a high crime rate. And there are tough neighbourhoods that are majority old-stock francophone, or anglophone. I taught adults in Hochelaga-Maisonneuve during the biker wars and it was anything but reassuring and peaceful. The bikers also recruited teens to be “strikers” and to commit crimes for them because they could not be tried in adult court.

    (By the way, you’ll rarely catch me in a suburb, but that is for other reasons)… ;-)

  23. Maria,

    Firstly, I`m fully billingual. I never said that ALL of the miniorities or immigrants in Quebec are criminals. I said we tend to have the highest crime rate in neighborhoods that have a high miniority population. My mother is Quebecois and was born in Quebec, but on my father`s side, my grandparents are polish immigrants that came to Canada after the war. They arent criminals…Either way, enough with trying to always be politically correct, if it`s the truth than it`s the truth. Don`t know what you have against living in the suburbs…At least I don`t have to worry about getting mugged and having my house lit on fire during a riot…

  24. Well, as a Pole, you are a member of a minority group in Montréal – there is not a large Polish population here – though fortunately it has been growing of late – a visit to the big Polish church of St Michael’s at the corner of St-Urbain and St-Viateur will confirm that! I don’t see “minority” as a negative term; I was just wondering why on earth you were using it that way…

    I’m most definitely NOT being PC about so-called “street gangs” that prey above all on people in their own neighbourhoods and communities, just pointing out that there are pure-laine Québécois gangs such as les motards who are every bit as violent and predatory.

    Suburbs. One word. Cars. Not very pedestrian or cyclist-friendly (though the new métro to Laval has been a big improvement there).

    I don’t drive a car. Never have, never will, no more than I’d push crack.

  25. Lena,

    Why don’t you try hanging out in a park at midnight and see if any police officers hassle you about it?

    Clearly, white privilege plays a large role in who is allowed to use public space at certain times of the day without facing harassment and/or violence from those “risking their lives” to protect our communities.

  26. Cameron…
    When I was a teenager, we used to meet up at our high school’s park. We were constantly hassled by the police and told to leave. And we would leave. We didnt however disrespect the police or attack them. Whether your black or white, if your loitering in park at night, cops are going to tell you to leave and ask questions. There wouldnt have been violence that night if the authorities were respected and not attacked…I cant even believe that I’m explaining this! Oh and before you make any more comments… No, I dont believe that ALL police are always right ALL the time.I’m aware that racism exists, as well as racial profiling. I dont however believe that it goes on half as much as people claim. I think it’s a hell of a good exuse. Point is, I lived my teenage years in the suburbs, and we were always asked for ID and questioned late at night. It’s only natural! Young people walking in groups at night… we would simply show ID, tell them were walking home and they would leave. Had we mouthed off and started attacking them, I suspect being white or not, we’d have gotten severly beat or shot as well.

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