INTERVIEW: Will Prosper on serving his community, and his biggest mistake

Facing allegations he obstructed a homicide investigation, Prosper leans on a career of community work and activism in his bid to become Montreal's first Black borough mayor
Christopher Curtis
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“Can you play?”

Huguette pointed toward a piano by the entrance.

“Well, I….”

“Because if you can play, that’d be a great distraction. Elections can be very boring, you know?”

I walked into Will Prosper’s campaign headquarters expecting throngs of overcaffeinated staffers yelling over the din of phones and copy machines. Instead, I found a solitary volunteer — Prosper’s mother, Huguette — toiling away in a room with fake wooden panels and wall-to-wall carpeting.

There wasn’t even a pot of coffee brewing.

I suppose that’s what you get for holding a municipal election in the middle of a pandemic. The storefront on Fleury Street is the nerve centre of Prosper’s bid to become Montréal Nord’s first Black mayor. It’s also a sort of microcosm of the borough as well.

Just across the street, elderly men lounged outside Café Pronto, quietly speaking Italian to each other between sips of espresso. They shared the block with a Muslim butcher, a Haitian hair salon and a hardware store owned by French Canadians.

Huguette told me their campaign headquarters used to be a church, hence the piano.

“Some sort of Protestant thing, evangelical maybe,” she said.

Once, this place promised members of the Haitian community salvation in the afterlife. Today, Prosper is making a more policy-centric pitch.

He’ll rattle off statistics about how Montréal-Nord is the poorest borough on the island of Montreal and yet the city only funds two social workers to serve 80,000 residents. At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, he says, the virus spread mercilessly across the cramped apartments along Maurice Duplessis Boulevard. Back then, there were more COVID deaths in Montréal-Nord than in all of British Columbia.

Then there are the little things; a high school football team that can’t play in the borough because their field is missing a goalpost. So the kids take a bus 30 minutes south to Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, where they play “home games” in front of empty bleachers.

Prosper is Montréal-Nord through and through. His father, an accountant, fled Haiti to escape the murderous Duvalier regime and settled in Montreal’s North End. His mom, a Québécois woman with deep roots in the borough, steeped her son in the social democratic politics of 1970s Quebec.

Prosper has been a football coach, a cop, a filmmaker and a mentor to Black youth in the borough. He’s perhaps best known as the activist who led the fight to reform policing in Quebec after the killing of unarmed teenager Fredy Villanueva by a white police officer.

“Everybody around here knows Will. Not Will Prosper, just Will,” said Nargess Mustapaha, who co-founded the community organization Hoodstock with Prosper. “He’s a uniter, a bridge builder, but also someone you want on your side in a fight.”

Perhaps it’s a good thing Prosper is scrappy because he has a tough fight ahead of him.

To win this election, he’ll have to unseat a two-term incumbent backed by former Montreal mayor Denis Coderre. The brash former mayor is a political fixture in Montréal-Nord, having represented the borough in the House of Commons for 16 years. Coderre also knows a thing or two about bare-knuckle politics.

Prosper learned that the hard way in August when, a few days after announcing his candidacy, he was hit with a scandal that threatened to undo his decades of community work. Coderre’s people swarmed him in the press, dragging his name through the mud at every opportunity.

For the first time since those early days, Prosper agreed to speak at length about one of the biggest mistakes he ever made. He also outlined his vision for the borough and the reason he’s hopeful for the future.

Prosper and his campaign’s chief volunteer, his mother, Huguette.
Christopher Curtis

A mistake, and a smear campaign

Before he became a politician, Will Prosper was a young man facing a moral dilemma.

While working as an RCMP officer in northern Manitoba 22 years ago, he got wind that a childhood friend was in trouble. He had fallen in with some local drug dealers and Montreal police suspected he was involved in the killing of a rival gangster.

The friend, whom we’ll call Jason, came up with Prosper in the playgrounds and lowrises of Montréal-Nord. They were kids together at École St-Rémi and, as teenagers, they founded Dope Squad, a breakdance crew that performed at their high school, École Calixa-Lavallée.

“(Jason) was everyone’s buddy, he just had this innate ability to put people at ease, to bring people together,” said Prosper. “He was always the best athlete in the group: the best boxer, the fastest sprinter. He had all these skills but he never had the support he needed.”

They drifted apart over time. Prosper was recruited to play basketball at Dawson College and then Concordia University before he joined the RCMP. For Jason, the same qualities that made him such a popular kid became an asset for small-time criminals in the neighbourhood.

Even though the two found themselves on opposite sides of the law, Jason’s parents held out hope that Prosper could get their son to smarten up and turn things around.

“His father reached out to me and said, ‘Will, you know, you need to keep talking to him because he listens to you,’” said Prosper. “In Montréal-Nord, if you go to Calixa Lavallée high school, chances are you know someone who is going down that path.

“So what do you do when someone you know gets into trouble? Do you just push them aside and forget about them? For me, it’s important to keep talking, to always try to bring them back to the right path.”

What Prosper did, after finding out about his friend’s legal trouble, was a clear violation of police ethics.

Using his RCMP credentials, he logged onto a federal criminal database and accessed the files of Montreal detectives who were looking into Jason. That a Mountie stationed in Manitoba would look into an investigation by a different police force some 3,000 kilometres away raised flags. When police looked deeper into the matter, they realized Prosper and Jason grew up in the same neighbourhood, triggering an internal investigation. An examination of Prosper’s phone records showed that, after consulting the database, the young constable called his old friend.

Members of an RCMP disciplinary board claimed Prosper was evasive and “arrogant” during questioning, but he submitted to a polygraph exam. Ultimately, the board couldn’t prove that Prosper leaked information to his old friend, and Jason was never charged in the shooting death of a rival gang member.

Still, the investigation torpedoed a promising career and Prosper was forced to resign from the RCMP in 2003.

“Of course I regret what I did, it was wrong,” Prosper said. “But I also faced consequences for my actions.”

He and Jason assumed the events would remain sealed in a document at RCMP headquarters and they could move on with their lives.

They were wrong.

In August, days after Prosper announced his candidacy, the disciplinary report was leaked to Le Journal de Montréal. Prosper’s allies feared this story would undermine a career of activism and community work.

The scandal also blindsided Projet Montréal, the party of Mayor Valérie Plante, which had faith that Prosper could unseat borough mayor Christine Black. Sources close to Plante say the RCMP report hadn’t come up when they vetted the candidate.

Black seized on the news, demanding he withdraw from the race because of his “close ties to street gangs.” She also implied that — after a string of gang-related shootings in the borough over the past summer — Prosper couldn’t be trusted to keep citizens safe. Even media reports that quoted Prosper’s supporters wrote about the allegations as though they were proven.

Coderre demanded Prosper withdraw his candidacy, saying the 47-year-old father of two wasn’t worthy to serve the public. The Montreal Police Brotherhood called the news “staggering.” For a moment, it seemed as though Prosper’s political career was over. But then a funny thing happened.

Black’s attack on Prosper appears to have galvanized support for the candidate.

Activists, journalists and longtime residents of the borough all say Prosper has been the victim of a smear campaign designed to paint him as a gangster.

“We live in a community where most of us know someone who might be in that gang world,” said Mustapha. “So when you say that someone who made a mistake 22 years ago shouldn’t have a second chance, what are you saying to all the young Black men who might be trying to leave that street gang life behind them?

“You’re telling them they’ll be labelled as gangsters forever. Will made a mistake, he was punished for it and then he spent 20 years working in his community.”

Fabrice Vil, a lawyer who mentors youth in Montréal-Nord, said that while he was taken aback by the news, it never caused him to doubt Prosper’s integrity.

“The Will I know puts his community first. He’s someone whose actions have helped countless lives in our neighbourhood,” said Vil, who founded the youth mentorship program Pour 3 Points. “To associate him with the recent shootings in Montréal-Nord is unfair and hurtful.”

Alain Mathieu, who coached high school football with Prosper, recounted how his old friend made sure none of the kids would play on an empty stomach.

“Will knew that, to a lot of these young men, we needed to be more than coaches, that we had to look out for them on and off the field,” Mathieu said. “Will would stay after practice to help our quarterback overcome self-doubt. He would have protein bars ready for the kids who might not be eating enough at home because their parents were struggling to make ends meet.”

For Prosper, the leak of Jason’s real name in connection to a murder investigation was “troubling” on a number of levels.

“(Jason) was never even charged in the investigation but because the report was leaked, his name will always be linked to the murder of a gang member,” Prosper said. “Never mind that he’s probably a father now, that this could cost him a job in the future and that it’s destroying his reputation. There could be retaliation from gang members who knew the victim.

“Lots of people could have blood on their hands if something happens. I really hope nothing does, but it worries me that someone would go to that length, that someone would endanger other people just to hurt my campaign. Quite often, you’ve seen me in the streets saying “Black lives matter,” but this is a clear case where, to some people, they don’t. They’re just disposable.

“They wanted to attack me, but they had so much disregard for anyone who might be caught in the crossfire. Once you stick that ‘gangster’ label on someone, it’s impossible to wash it off.

“It doesn’t matter if you were selling pot or shoplifting, when people say ‘gangster’ it’s like you’re Tony Montana. But most of these kids are not, they’re minor delinquents. Yes, there are hardcore gangsters, but there are lots of youth who need a way out of that life.”

A riot is the voice of the unheard

On the night Montréal-Nord burned, Prosper said he felt the fire raging inside him too.

He wasn’t one of the people marching after a white police constable shot and killed 18-year-old Fredy Villanueva that evening in 2008. Prosper was watching TV at home when he came across a news report depicting a riot in his neighbourhood.

“I thought, I’ve got to do something,” he said. “I called my street worker friend and I said, ‘Bobby, we’ve gotta get down there and make sure nothing happens.’ When we arrived on the scene, we saw the TV news cameras and I worried they’d do the typical report about how bad our community is. So I decided to speak up.

“It wasn’t a riot, it was a revolt. People had finally had enough.”

Prosper approached a TVA Nouvelles reporter and passionately listed the grievances that led so many to take to the streets that night.

Police had ramped up their “street checks” in Montréal-Nord that summer, responding to a spike in gang activity. Years later, the department’s own data would show that police stop Black young men at four to five times the rate of white youth.

Sources describe being pulled over for no reason — stopped at the park, the basketball courts, on street corners, in front of their families — and ordered to produce identification.

“The mere fact of your existence as a person of colour made you a suspect,” said one source, a local teacher, who did not want to be identified for fear of reprisals. “It’s humiliating to be treated like a criminal in your own neighbourhood by officers who only ever come around when they have a gun and a badge. They ask you who you are, who you’re with, where you’re going and why you’re going there.

“This happened all the time. If you were a young Black man in basketball shoes, they looked at you like you were a gangbanger. It’s an awful thing to feel like you’re always being watched by cops.… It felt like occupied territory that summer.

“In the months leading up to Fredy’s death, a lot of us felt like something terrible was bound to happen.”

When two officers approached Fredy Villanueva, his older brother, Dany, and their friends under the pretence that they were playing an illegal dice game, it became — as Mustapha later called the incident — “the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

When Dany tried to walk away from the officers, Constable Jean-Loup Lapointe wrestled him to the ground. Lapointe and his colleague say they were kicked and punched and that they “felt surrounded” in the ensuing struggle with Dany and the other young men.

After crashing onto the pavement and claiming he feared for his life, Lapointe drew his pistol and fired four rounds, killing Fredy and wounding two of his friends.

The slain teenager’s family held a public vigil in his honour the following day. He was a shy kid whose family fled to Canada from Honduras to escape political violence. A librarian who worked in the borough wrote a letter to Fredy’s family, recounting how he’d spend his afternoons quietly reading and that he was always surprised when she remembered his name. Fredy’s sister said he had gotten a job picking berries to help support their mother. That’s just the kind of kid he was.

Now he was dead at the hands of a white police officer. Though Lapointe was cleared of wrongdoing by an internal investigation, it was impossible to deny the racial element in Fredy’s death.

After the vigil, some local youth took to the streets and things quickly got out of control.

“I remember vividly the smell of metal burning,” Prosper said. “But I also saw an elderly white Québécois woman on her balcony, yelling, ‘You go guys, you keep on going!’ That’s a white person, living in the neighbourhood, that understood our anger. In the media, columnists treated this uprising like it came out of nowhere, but she knew what it was like for Black youth in our community.

“There was this vacant lot with concrete blocks to keep cars out. I saw news reporters with their backs to the wall, as though they were in Iraq. I remember seeing police officers take cover. And just a few feet away, you’d see 13-year-old kids pedalling through the street like nothing was wrong. That’s the disconnect, right there.

“So when I saw the TV journalist, I spoke my mind about root causes and racial profiling. It’s like Martin Luther King said, a riot is the voice of the unheard. A riot was the only voice this community had. They didn’t feel represented by our politicians, they didn’t feel respected by the police, they felt like it was a crime for them just to exist. They lashed out.”

A few minutes after the live televised interview, Prosper saw a young white man run towards him.

“He said, ‘Hey, are you the guy that just spoke on TV?’ I said, ‘Yeah, that’s me.’ He told me we needed to work together and change things,” Prosper said. “We knew the politicians would sweep this under the rug. That’s how we started Montréal-Nord Républik.”

A fateful council meeting

Nargess Mustapha was so nervous she could feel her whole body shaking.

In a few minutes, she’d confront the mayor of Montréal-Nord at a borough council meeting and demand he resign for his handling of the Villanueva shooting. This wasn’t a political stunt or an angry protest, it was one part of a larger plan to get answers for Fredy’s family and reform policing on the North End of the island.

The man she would face down wasn’t just some local pencil pusher. Marcel Parent was a towering figure in local politics, serving eight years as borough mayor, four terms in the National Assembly and chairing Denis Coderre’s campaign during the 1997 federal election. Some of Mustapha’s allies weren’t born when Parent got his start as an elected official.

She remembers looking to Prosper for guidance.

“We were all young back then, but there was a calmness about Will, a sort of quiet confidence that helped us get through the difficult moments,” said Mustapha. “I had only known him for a few days. He had just founded the Montréal-Nord Républik collective and we all met at an apartment in northeast Montreal to plan our action. That’s where the movement started, in this tiny apartment on Jubinville Avenue.

“I was the only woman there; it was a bunch of guys and me. Still, they asked me to be the one to present our demands. So I said, ‘Okay, why not?’ And that changed all of our lives.”

The group that confronted Mayor Parent that day wasn’t only calling for his resignation. Sure, the 76-year-old white borough mayor seemed out of touch with his rapidly changing community. Parent spoke about Fredy’s death and the uprising that followed as some unforeseeable tragedy, as though it merely a flash of anger that would blow over in a few months.

But Mustapha was there to tell him she wanted justice. Not just for Fredy’s family but for all the kids who grew up in abject poverty, for all the people of colour who felt alienated by the borough’s white liberal power structure, for all the kids constantly badgered by police who never set foot in the neighbourhood before becoming cops.

“This was us telling the mayor he didn’t represent us and that this wouldn’t just go away,” Mustapha said. “What I remember from Will that night was that it wasn’t about him grandstanding. He was already fairly established in the community. He wanted to elevate us, he wanted to help create the next generation of community leaders. And on the other side of things, the mayor just wanted us to be quiet.”

Parent didn’t resign that night but he would never run for office again. He retired the following year.

Mustapha and Prosper kept pushing. They fought for a public coroner’s inquest into the shooting and, after it was announced, they demanded Villanueva’s family be provided with legal representation. It was largely because of this activism that the world learned exactly how flawed the police conduct had been that summer night in 2008.

At the inquest, it was revealed that internal affairs investigators allowed Lapointe and his partner to get their story straight before making their official statement — a blatant violation of protocol. By contrast, all of the civilians who witnessed the shooting were immediately separated and questioned.

The coroner suggested the Sûreté du Québec detectives assigned to investigate Fredy’s death seemed to go out of their way not to question either officer that night. When the pair finally made their official statements, one week after the shooting, Lapointe’s partner didn’t even consult her handwritten notes.

And the reason they approached the boys that night — they were violating a bylaw against public gambling — had never once been enforced in the history of Montréal-Nord. It raised an obvious question: Why did two officers approach the young men?

“It’s pretty obvious this wouldn’t have happened if the young men were white,” said Prosper. “The other obvious flaw the inquest pointed to was that we can’t trust the police to investigate the police without bias.”

Quebec changed the way officer-involved shootings are investigated because of the coroner’s inquest into Fredy’s death. It led to the creation of a civilian oversight body — called le Bureau des Enquêtes Indépendantes — which remains in place today. That came, in no small part, because of the relentless pressure from Prosper and his allies.

The fight didn’t end there.

Mustapha and Prosper went on to launch a non-profit group called Hoodstock in 2009. Youth in Montréal-Nord can turn to Hoodstock for a free legal clinic, a sexual violence prevention program, funding for arts projects and access to laptops, tablets or other technology their families can’t afford.

‘Running against the establishment’

Mathieu has known Prosper since they were teenagers on the basketball courts outside École Henri-Bourassa.

“He was cold-blooded out there,” Mathieu says. “You couldn’t rattle him on the court. The guy had nerves of steel. I think he takes that same calmness with him into community work. I’ve known him for 30 years and not once have I seen Will lose his temper. He can get heated but he doesn’t lose his cool.

“So to circle back to this thing about Will and the RCMP. Well, yes he made a mistake, but he followed that up with 20 years of service. I founded an organization that mentors youth in the neighbourhood and I could have never done that without Will. We organize sports, activities, but we also teach kids about their civic responsibilities, about their duty to vote and get involved with their community. That wouldn’t be possible without Will.”

Things haven’t changed enough since Fredy’s death, Prosper says. Five years ago, another person of colour was shot dead by police in the borough.

The circumstances were different this time around; the victim, Jean-Pierre Bony, was trying to flee a drug raid by escaping through the window of a Montréal-Nord stash house when an officer shot him with a plastic-coated bullet. Bony fell eight feet from the window and died of his injuries.

A march to protest the shooting ended in violence that night in April, but this time the officer was arrested and charged with manslaughter. Last winter he was acquitted, after a judge found he used “reasonable force” in the intervention.

Frustrated over the lack of progress on police reform, Prosper joined the wave of Black Lives Matter protests following the murder of George Floyd by a white Mineappolis police officer. Back then, he was part of a growing chorus calling to defund the Montreal police and reallocate taxpayer money towards preventing the root causes of crime.

Since joining Mayor Plante’s team, he’s taken a different approach.

“I can see how, for the people who live on streets affected by gang violence, they might feel safer if they see more squad cars patrolling,” Prosper said. “What frustrates me is that we look to more police as an easy solution to crime. When someone shoots another person, that’s at the very end of a long road that started years earlier.

“How do we intervene in this person’s life before it gets out of control? It isn’t with more police, that’s just attacking the symptom. It’s with better community resources, it’s by addressing root causes. I don’t know any kid who grows up wanting to shoot someone. What we’re seeing today, violence on the streets, is a failure of our politicians to address those root causes.”

On the question of police, Prosper has been hit on both sides of the political spectrum.

To his right flank, Coderre and his team claim Prosper is in favour of defunding the department, a line regularly parroted in Montreal’s conservative press. On the other side, former allies like Balarama Holness — who is running for mayor of Montreal — claim Prosper abandoned the Black Lives Matter cause by allying himself with Plante.

While expressing solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, the Plante administration has overseen a steady increase in police budgets. Last summer, it signed off on a plan to yet again increase funding and create an anti-gun trafficking squad — an investigative unit that aims to get illegal firearms off the streets of Montreal. Though it isn’t the same hamfisted approach of administrations past, it still means more money in police coffers at a time when polls suggest most voters want to see police budgets cut.

Would Prosper vote to increase the Montreal police’s budget?

“It’s something we have to look at year to year.”

Back at the campaign office, I looked out the window and spotted Prosper strolling along Fleury Street before our meeting.

Already a few minutes late, he stopped to chat with the Italians outside Café Pronto. When he walked through the door, he apologized for the tardiness and offered me some candy out of a plastic container.

“Did you know those men?” I asked.

“In this community, the Italians and I go way back,” he said. “They were my soccer coaches growing up. My friends were all Italians when I played soccer. They’re a huge part of the social fabric here. These are guys who reliably vote Liberal, for candidates like Denis Coderre or whoever the established Liberal is, whether it’s in city politics or federally. But they feel taken for granted and they’re pissed off.

“The challenge, in this election, is that we’re running against that establishment. And I think it was pretty clear, early on, that when the establishment can’t challenge you on your ideas, they go after you personally.

“They try to paint me as a gangster, as someone who should be feared. That’s not me.”

Though Montréal-Nord is the city’s most racially diverse borough, it’s still roughly 50 per cent white. Prosper says he isn’t interested in breaking down his constituency by race, that he wants to create a better borough for everyone.

“With Hoodstock, when we were distributing tablets for the elderly, these were mostly French Canadians,” Prosper said. “When we work with youth, it’s not just people of colour, it’s white kids too. Poverty is the enemy here. Maybe the opposition sees things in terms of race, but I see this campaign, first and foremost, as one that wants to bring everyone to the table.”

Thirteen years after he encouraged Mustapha to confront the mayor of Montréal-Nord, Prosper is within reach of that very office. Back then, he brought the fight to an ally of Coderre and the Liberal establishment. Now he’s threatening to unseat another Coderre associate at the ballot box.

“That night at the borough council still feels like yesterday,” Prosper said. “But it’s also been a long and exhausting road.”

Prosper circles back to his time as an RCMP officer. Though it has become synonymous with the scandal that rocked his campaign, he says there was a time when being a young Black man in the Mounties was a source of pride for his friends and family.

But on his way to being deployed in Manitoba, one friend told Prosper something he’ll never forget.

“She said, ‘You’re just gonna be like everyone else who got out of the neighbourhood. You’ll just forget about us and never come back. That resonated with me,’” said Prosper. “I said, ‘I don’t wanna be that person. I’ll come back. I’ll get involved.’ And that’s what happened. It wasn’t under the best circumstances but it happened.

“I’m home now.”

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