Young people of colour ‘belong in the political process’ in Montréal-Nord

Problems of policing and poverty being confronted with both street protests and electoral politics
Photo: A residential street in Montréal-Nord - Michel G.
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“Do you eat pork?”

He opened the takeout box to reveal a braised chop nesting in rice, beans and fried plantains. Or were they double fried? The kind you cook in oil, flatten, cover in batter and toss back into the skillet until they’re golden crisp? The smell of Caribbean spices nearly brought a tear to my eye.

Sacha-Wilky Merazil and I were supposed to meet at a Haitian restaurant in Rivière-des-Prairies to talk about gun violence, particularly the drive-by shooting that killed three and wounded five in the northeast borough on Aug. 2. The triple homicide, according to CBC Montreal, is just one episode in the city’s “summer of gun violence.”

“There isn’t an overall increase in gun crime but the Montreal police have done a great job of selling the idea of a gun crisis to reporters and columnists”

Our plans got mixed up that evening, so instead Merazil met me at a park in neighbouring Montréal-Nord. He brought griot, a traditional pork, rice and bean dish made famous by Haitian immigrants in the city.

“This food right here, it’s the real deal,” said Merazil, a university student, newspaper columnist and contributor to Haitian community radio.

That night, as dusk settled over Parc Henri-Bourassa, the sound of cicadas cut through the muggy August night. We saw children race their bicycles around the soccer field, bickering over who was the fastest. We saw a father take his daughter to the splash pad so they could cool off.

We did not see Montreal’s summer of gun violence.

Sacha-Wilky Merazil in Montréal-Nord
Christopher Curtis

Tensions

Ted Rutland is calling bullshit.

The Concordia University professor says that while the drive-by shooting is disconcerting, it’s being used by police to justify ham-fisted tactics in predominantly Black neighbourhoods, in northeast boroughs like Montréal-Nord, Saint-Michel and Rivière-des-Prairies.

“Since last year, the Montreal police have made an explicit effort to get more stories about gun violence in the media,” said Rutland, an associate professor at Concordia. “Police chief Sylvain Caron announced that in a press conference a year ago and we’ve seen that. Almost every single shooting is covered in the press.

“Even if there’s no victims, no culprits, no bullets found. If it sounded like gunshots, there’s an article about it. Especially in the northeast of the city.”

In fact, gun crime declined by 20 per cent between 2018 and 2020, according to the Montreal police’s annual reports. Crime related to gun trafficking, meanwhile, fell by 43 per cent over that period. And while it’s true that attempted murders involving a firearm jumped by 68 per cent in 2020, homicides involving a firearm fell by 63 per cent.

“There isn’t an overall increase in gun crime but the Montreal police have done a great job of selling the idea of a gun crisis to reporters and columnists,” said Rutland. “What we know is there have been shootings and those should concern us. What we need to try to think about is what’s causing this. What are the social and economic causes of this and how do we address that?”

The so-called gun crisis happens to fall on the eve of two elections: a federal campaign that ends on Sep. 20 and municipal elections set for November. Those contests will decide the future of policing in the island’s northeast boroughs, and Rutland says the end result could be more boots on the ground instead of resources for community groups.

“The dominant response, from city hall, from mayoral candidate Denis Coderre, from politicians across the board, is to say that we need more police,” said Rutland. “Based on what? It’s not quite clear. The police have had an anti-gun squad for a year and half. They added another anti-gun squad that works mostly on trafficking earlier this year.

“So it’s a little confusing that the police are saying that more policing is the solution to a problem they’ve been working on for a year and a half. And it’s a problem they’re saying has gotten worse despite this new gun squad.”

The newest gun squad, which pairs Montreal’s officers with detectives in the provincial police, has a startup budget of $3 million and was launched last winter. When I met with Merazil last week across from École Secondaire Henri-Bourassa, it occurred to us that the school’s football field has been missing a goal post for years.

“You won’t see cops rolling through Westmount Park doing 30 kilometres an hour. But that’s life in Montréal-Nord”

Technically, every home game the Henri-Bourassa Béliers play is actually an away game because they have to find a regulation field in a neighbouring borough.

“That’s right, there’s not the resources for the football team to play at their own school,” Merazil said. “How do you foster success that way?”

As if on cue, a police car zoomed across the park. It was the second time the cops made their rounds in under an hour.

“You won’t see cops rolling through Westmount Park doing 30 kilometres an hour. But that’s life in Montréal-Nord,” he said. “You see, they might stop and ask the kids what they’re doing, where they’re going, maybe ask them to identify themselves. It’s not very welcoming.”

To say the police and residents in the neighbourhood have a tense relationship would be accurate. In a report published in 2019, the department’s own data found that Black people are five times more likely to be stopped by police than whites are. Arab youth were between 15 and 24 times more likely to be stopped by police than white youth.

And the ghost of Fredy Villanueva looms large over northeast Montreal. Merazil and I chatted on a park bench just a few metres from where police shot Villanueva dead 13 years ago. That day, two officers spotted a group of kids playing dice next to the park and moved in to write them a fine for violating a bylaw against gambling.

None of them were armed or disruptive, and police records would later show that this type of bylaw infraction had never been enforced in the borough’s history.

Frustrated, Fredy’s older brother, Dany, walked away, refusing to identify himself. When police moved in to arrest him, a scuffle broke out. One of the cops drew his pistol and fired into the group of young men.

Fredy was 18 when he died. The officer who killed him faced no repercussions.

The son of Honduran refugee claimants, Fredy was a model student and the kind of kid who got a summer job picking berries to help his mom out. When he died, a woman who worked at the local library recounted how Fredy would go in and just read for hours.

“I was 13 when that happened, and I remember it like it was yesterday,” said Merazil. “Fredy could have been any one of us.”

That summer, a protest over the shooting turned into a full-scale riot, triggering a public coroner’s inquest into Fredy Villanueva’s death. The inquest found that detectives investigating the shooting had allowed the officers involved to get their stories straight before interrogating them, a violation of protocol.

In the end, the activists who pushed for a coroner’s inquest into Fredy’s death forced Quebec to change the way officer-involved shootings are investigated. One of those activists, Will Prosper, is running for mayor of Montréal-Nord in November.

Not an inevitable tragedy

When news of the drive-by made its way across northeast Montreal two weeks ago, Merazil got an idea.

Just about everywhere he goes, the 26-year-old brings along a deck of cards, chess set or whatever board game he happens to be obsessed with at the time. Lately, it’s been dominos.

“Something magical happens when you go to the park and bust out a set of dominos,” said Merazil. “People drop their guard, they get closer, they’ll say ‘I got next, I got next’ and then before long you have a bit of a crowd. And then, all of a sudden, you’re sitting with your neighbours and you’re talking about everything and nothing.

“Maybe we try to solve life’s big problems or maybe we just have a nice moment together as neighbours and new friends.”

Merazil brings people together. Maybe it’s the electric blue suit he always seems to be wearing or the warmth that radiates from his smile. There’s something special about him.

It’s what Mayor Valérie Plante’s Projet Montréal team must have seen in him four years ago when they chose him to run as a city council candidate in Montréal-Nord. Just 22 at the time, he lost, but the experience hasn’t tempered his love for the place he erazil calls home.

So in between shifts at CPAM radio, Merazil talks to young people. Or rather, he listens.

“I’ll have a kid tell me his big brother is in jail or his mom worked in housekeeping at a hotel and lost her job when the pandemic started,” said Merazil. “You can say, ‘If you’re looking for work, let’s find you a summer job. If your mom’s struggling, we can work on a CV together and find you all a food bank.’

“Some of these kids don’t even have the internet at home, some of them have a computer but they share it with four or five siblings. Or they’re kids who need to be outside because they’re suffocating in their apartment without air conditioning. Some of them just want someone to talk to.”

Guns are not what’s killing people in northeast Montreal. Poverty is.

The pandemic was especially hard in the northeast boroughs, where many of the city’s most recent asylum seekers live. Hundreds were on the front lines working as orderlies when COVID-19 was ravaging Quebec’s long-term care centres. Many brought it home, and within a few months, Montréal-Nord, Saint-Michel and Rivière-des-Prairies were at the centre of one of Canada’s biggest COVID-19 outbreaks.

At its peak last year, the borough accounted for 10 per cent of Montreal’s COVID diagnoses, with an average of 264 cases per 100,000 residents, according to public health records. In the downtown borough of Ville-Marie that number was just 75, and in suburbs like Beaconsfield and Montreal West it was below 40.

In Merazil’s reckoning, guns are not what’s killing people in northeast Montreal. Poverty is. The real culprit here, he says, is a lack of public services that always seems to affect Montreal’s predominantly Black boroughs the most.

“There’s no metro station, no movie theatre, no sports complex, and the community groups that are here are chronically underfunded,” said Merazil. “You have kids who live in a cramped apartment with their siblings. Mom is working, dad is driving a cab 60 hours a week or at a factory or both. There’s a lot of young folks out here who just need a safe place to be themselves and have something fun to do.”

Even so, Merazil points to the young Black men who make the northeast boroughs proud. There’s Toronto Raptors forward Chris Boucher, who grew up in Montréal-Nord, and NHL forward Mathieu Joseph, who brought the Stanley Cup to his old borough Sunday after winning it with the Tampa Bay Lightning last July.

Like Merazil, these young men were the children of Haitian immigrants. Now they’re building bridges between their home and the outside world. That seems to get a lot fewer headlines than the tales of gang violence that dominate the news these days.

“Yes, I went to high school with kids who wound up dead and others who wound up in jail,” said Merazil. “But I went to high school with people who became doctors, nurses, journalists and teachers. Our story isn’t one of inevitable tragedy.”

‘We belong in the political process’

The municipal election began only last week, and it’s already gotten personal.

Representing Plante in the borough is filmmaker, community worker and former RCMP constable Will Prosper. After news of his nomination last week, incumbent mayor Christine Black, a white woman, immediately lashed out at Prosper, a Black man, for his involvement with groups like Defund the Police.

If that weren’t enough, Montreal mayoral candidate Balarama Holness attacked Prosper from the left, criticizing him for associating with Mayor Plante and her party and “supporting policies that perpetuate systemic discrimination in the city.”

This all may seem like a moot point since Black won the last election handily, beating Holness — the Projet Montréal candidate for borough mayor at the time — by 5,000 votes. Black is a member of Ensemble Montréal, the party of former Liberal MP Denis Coderre — who represented Montréal-Nord in Ottawa for over a decade.

It’s a lot to keep track of.

“We’re not just on the streets protesting anymore, we’re not just sitting behind our keyboards, we’re getting involved and we’re going to change things”

Sources close to Mayor Plante say Coderre’s key to success in the borough is his lock on the middle- and upper-middle-class Italians and other white voters who live in suburban homes by the river just north of Gouin Blvd.

But Merazil says things are changing.

“Will running for borough mayor is progress, Balarama running for mayor is progress,” he said. “These are two young Black men whose reality is a lot closer to ours than the candidates we normally see. It used to be, big parties would only run their Black candidates in ridings that were unwinnable just to be able to check off a box. Not anymore.”

Not so long ago, Prosper was an unknown activist helping Villanueva’s family through the brutal process of a coroner’s investigation. Now he’s Mayor Plante’s best hope of winning the borough.

Holness may be trailing Plante and Coderre in the polls, but he too is leaving his mark on the city. It was Holness’ relentless door-knocking campaign that produced a 20,000-signature petition forcing Montreal to hold public consultations on systemic racism.

The consultation paved the way for Montreal police to stop the controversial policy of street checks, which disproportionately targets young men of colour.

He points to Projet candidate Fatima Gabriela Salazar Gomez, a young Latinx activist, as a sign that it’s becoming the norm, not the exception, for people of colour to seek office in northeast boroughs.

“We’re not just on the streets protesting anymore, we’re not just sitting behind our keyboards, we’re getting involved and we’re going to change things,” Merazil said. “When I ran, I was surprised at how many of my neighbours and friends told me I was too young to do it. But I wanted to show other youth that we belong in the political process.”

In the ensuing years, Merazil has become a father, he’s established himself as an emerging voice for his community, writing columns in major Montreal publications like La Presse and Journal Métro, and he’s studying in the department of humanities at Université de Québec à Montréal.

And he is an incurable political junkie. That night, he had to leave our meeting early to attend a mayoral debate between Prosper and Black.

Before leaving, he offered one last piece of insight.

“You know, they’re building an express bus lane and soon we’ll have a light rail station nearby,” said Merazil. “Maybe that’s progress, maybe that’s the beginning of gentrification. You have a lot of big real estate firms dropping cash in the northeast right now.

“It won’t be long until our rents go way up and maybe we're forced to leave this place in the next generation or so.”

This article was produced through The Rover, Christopher Curtis’s investigative journalism project with Ricochet.
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