It was spring 2020 when Youssef and his friend Keo decided to go skateboarding in Jarry Park in Montreal’s Villeray–Saint-Michel–Parc-Extension borough. In those early days of social distancing the pair figured it would be a safe way to cut through the stress and monotony of pandemic life. They dropped their bags at the entrance to the skate park and hopped on their boards, but were soon interrupted.
A police car crept through the park on the pedestrian walkway and stopped right next to the skate park. Youssef and Keo (whose names have been changed to protect from police retaliation) weren’t sure what the police wanted, but they weren’t keen on sticking around to find out. They jumped off their boards and grabbed their bags, setting off an unfortunate chain of events. “The police came out of the car and were, like, super aggressively yelling at us, like as if I had a gun… coming at us with their hands on their tasers,” Youssef said. They were being detained.
Youssef, who is of Moroccan descent, but white passing, noticed that he was being treated differently than his friend, who is a visible minority. Keo was forced to sit on the ground, his pockets and bag searched, while Youssef stood there dumbfounded.
The police officer handed them each a ticket for violating public health protocols — the fines totalling around $1500.
Youssef didn’t know if they were targeted that day because they were young skateboarders, or because his friend isn’t white, but a report released two weeks ago sheds some light on Montreal policing practices during the pandemic, and puts his experience into perspective. Youssef and Keo checked all the boxes.
A consortium of dozens of researchers, graduate students and community organizations across the province, the Obervatoire des profilages, released a report (in French) based on an access to information request with the province’s Ministry of Justice.
The report analyzed 31,845 tickets issued for public health violations during the first 15 months of the pandemic.
In Montreal, tickets were given out at much higher rates to young people and in boroughs with more vulnerable populations, the report found.
According to the report’s authors, the Ministry of Justice doesn’t collect certain demographic data, such as those on race, ethnicity or gender, but the researchers did have access to the ages and addresses of those fined. A request was submitted with the Ministry of Justice to know why this data isn’t collected. The response, sent by email, is vague. “The data held by the [the ministry] is limited to the information necessary to issue a ticket which is collected by the police,” said Isabelle Boily, spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice.
The report notes that throughout the public health crisis,“people who are judicialized are often those living in disadvantaged neighbourhoods, with a large multi-ethnic composition or in certain Indigenous communities generally located near urban areas.”
Park-Extension, the neighborhood Youssef calls home, is among the most diverse and most densely populated in the city. It also happens to be one of the poorest neighborhoods in Canada despite undergoing rapid gentrification.
The report found that among Montreal’s many boroughs, Villeray–Saint-Michel–Parc-Extension topped the list with 831 tickets given out over 15 months. When adjusted for population, the neighborhood still sits in the top six, behind Outremont, Ville-Marie, Plateau-Mont-Royal, Montréal-Nord and Lachine. More affluent areas of the island with far fewer visible minority residents, including Westmount, Mont-Royal, and Beconsfield, were ticketed nearly 80 per cent less than those at the top.
Those experiencing homelessness were also frequently targeted by the police — at least 275 tickets were given out to those who listed their residence as a resource for homelessness.
“This report confirms what many organizations were already seeing in the field: people in a situation of homelessness or vulnerability have received statements of offense for their sole presence in public space, regardless of their specific realities and the obstacles they face to respect sanitary measures,” said Bernard St-Jacques, director of the Clinique Droits Devant. “We now know that fines for violating the curfew were given to these people even after the [homeless] exemption, which is unacceptable.”
Resilience Montreal is a non-profit day shelter located next to Cabot Square. Executive director David Chapman said he was surprised to hear how many tickets were given to people who provided police a homelessness resource as their home address.
“It should have been the case that homeless were exempt from the beginning of the curfew, and also, with a clear understanding to police about how to interpret whether someone is actually homeless,” he said.
“One of the key cues would be that the person is giving a homeless resource as a place of address. Obviously, something has gone wrong here. Either the police are not understanding that this is the address of a homeless resource [or] there are a few officers that just don’t care.”
According to the Montreal police, “it was only in extreme cases which led to the issuance of a ticket: violence, flagrant lack of consideration for health measures or non-collaboration with specialized resources,” said Montreal police spokesperson Anik de Repentigny, by email. “For people experiencing homelessness, the police have always been instructed to exercise judgment, discernment, compassion and tolerance since the beginning of the pandemic.”
Montreal police sidestepped questions about why residents of certain neighborhoods, such as Park-Ex and Montreal-Nord, received significantly more fines than those living in other neighborhoods, and insisted that they were just following orders. “Health measures related to COVID-19 were decreed by the provincial government under the Public Health Act,” wrote de Repentigny. “As has been the case since the start of the pandemic, [Montreal police] does not have and has never had a decision-making role. We are rather in support of Public Health, in particular for the application of the instructions in force.”
Throughout the pandemic, Canadian provinces have been left largely on their own to determine how to respond to the health crisis within its borders.
Abby Deshman, a lawyer and the director of the Criminal Justice Program at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA), questions the use of punitive measures to deal with a public health crisis. “Using police, punitive fines, and coercive measures tends to disproportionately harm those communities … that are already subject to disproportionate and harmful policing practices,” she said, adding that Quebec has “been by far the most punitive province throughout the pandemic.”
The report notes that as of January, nearly $50 million in fines and fees were handed out across the province. “Non-payment of these fines and fees may result in collection procedures such as seizures, compensatory work, or even imprisonment for non-payment of fines,” the report states.
At the announcement of the first curfew on January 7, 2021, Quebec’s Public Security Minister Genvieve Guilbeault said that she expected the police to use good judgment in giving the tickets, and that targeted ticketing of vulnerable populations shouldn’t be a concern. The data tells a different story.
As the emergency health mandates wind down across Quebec and the country, it’s important to recognize that the pandemic disproportionately impacted the most marginalized among us. In March 2020, the pandemic still in its infancy, the United Nations looked at how the most vulnerable will be hit the hardest by COVID-19.
As researchers around the world dig through mountains of demographic data (where it’s available), the trends show that the U.N. was correct to have been concerned. Quebec, rather than attempting to address these known disparities and consider ways to protect these populations, disproportionately policed them instead.
Unfortunately, lessons may be hard to come by. In a province where Premier Francois Legault denied the existence of systemic racism after Joyce Echequan was mocked and left to die on a hospital bed because she was an Indigenous woman, it’s unlikely that these realities will change any time soon. There appears to be a willful disconnect between what politicians think police do and what police actually do — between systemic racism, the decision to police, and mortality rates during a health crisis. Those choices will continue to have a serious impact on vulnerable communities, and ultimately, everyone else.