Pierre Parent is used to seeing his clients hauled away in handcuffs.
It happens every day. Parent works with Montreal’s homeless population, folks eking out a life where, far too often, someone in crisis is met with brute force instead of compassion.
“Sometimes it feels like everyone on the street is either on their way to jail or just getting out of jail,” said Parent, who works in the Milton-Parc district. “They’re getting busted for simple drug possession, mischief, public intoxication, it’s usually some minor thing but way too often it ends with someone behind bars for the crime of being homeless.”
Say an unhoused person gets arrested for mischief. They smash a window, a passerby calls 911, the police roll up and take them to jail. They’ll be charged, released on a promise to re-appear in court and given a set of bail conditions that are nearly impossible for someone on the street to obey.
If they mess up even once, they’re arrested again and the process starts all over: another night in jail, another day lined up at the courthouse and more charges to face. All because of a broken window.
Parent’s job is to try to prevent this from happening. He’s part of a federally-funded program to help unhoused Indigenous people slowly make their way off the streets and out of the criminal justice system. The middle-aged street worker accompanies clients to their appointments, helps them find an apartment, a job, access to mental health services and he tries to keep the peace on Parc Ave.
But the program was gutted last spring, when most of its budget wasn’t renewed. That lapse in funding cut five of its seven street worker jobs, leaving only Parent and one colleague to work Milton-Parc at a time where the city’s homeless population is steadily rising.
With fewer workers to advocate for unhoused people, calling the cops becomes the default way of dealing with a public health crisis like homelessness. And that’s never worked particularly well.
Police issued more than 50,000 “incivility” tickets to homeless people between 2014 and 2019. These are mostly for small infractions like carrying an open beer bottle or littering but, all told, Montreal’s homeless population accounted for 40 per cent of the tickets police wrote during that period.
Which brings us to the Quebec election. Last month, the Coalition Avenir Québec promised to spend $250 million hiring 450 new police officers to the city’s police department.
Parent worries that this massive investment in policing means more resources to arrest the unhoused instead of getting them the care they need.
But CAQ leader François Legault says the new cops will bring order back to Montreal, citing a rise in homicides. And there's been an abnormal number of kids caught in the crossfire.
If these new officers are hired, Montreal will have the most police per capita of any city in Canada.
Now, in Legault’s defence, there are studies that show a correlation between more police officers on the street and a lower homicide rate. Of course, many of those same studies show that more police also leads to a sharp rise in arrests for minor crimes like simple drug possession or vandalism, pulling more and more people into a judiciary system that’s already bursting at the seams.
This tendency is especially pronounced among unhoused, Indigenous, and other racialized people.
“More police means more arrests, more profiling, more people behind bars and, guess what, our prisons are already full,” said Raphaëlle Desvignes, a criminal defence attorney. “Before the pandemic, it took three or four months to get a trial date for a small offense like mischief. Now it takes a year.
“The number of people in jail for pretrial detention right now is abhorrent. The number of people in our prisons, serving a seven-day sentence, is abhorrent. Can we at least agree that if you were sentenced to just seven days in jail, maybe you shouldn’t be in prison?
“Most of the people in provincial prison suffer from severe mental health problems. Putting them inside only makes things worse, in part, because those prisons don’t have the kinds of programs they need to heal and rehabilitate.”
In Quebec, 55 per cent of inmates released from provincial jail will end up being arrested again within two years. Ontario, meanwhile, has a recidivism rate of 37 per cent.
Montreal’s Bordeaux prison is so understaffed and overcrowded that inmates sometimes go a week without showering, according to two current prisoners and two defense attorneys. The inmates describe sharing a cell with mice and living in an environment of constant stress.
Some inmates spend up to 23 hours a day in their cell because there aren’t enough guards to supervise yard time. Others won’t feel the sun against their skin for days at a time.
“You’re just serving dead time, being warehoused until they release you and you get locked up again,” said Parent. “None of this prepares you for the outside world. None of this makes our society any safer in the long run. It’s hard to imagine how more police officers on our streets won’t just lead to more arrests and more vulnerable people behind bars.”
Mayor Valérie Plante said she was open to the idea of defunding the police
Depending on who you ask, the CAQ’s policing blitz is either long overdue or a $250 million public relations coup for Legault and the Montreal police department.
Just two years ago, the department was on shaky ground.
After police murdered George Floyd in Minnesota that summer, all of North America became embroiled in a debate about how to end systemic racism in policing. Asked whether Montreal would consider re-directing a part of its police budget towards social services, Mayor Valérie Plante said she was open to the idea.
Things had never quite jived between the mayor and her police department.
Chief Philippe Pichet was suspended in 2017 just one month into Plante’s first term as mayor, after a damning external review of the force. The review called the department’s internal affairs department “a gang of cowboys” who covered up complaints against their friends and used their investigative powers to target enemy officers.
Then there was the 2019 study of the department’s street-checking policy, which found officers were four times more likely to stop someone if they’re Black or Indigenous than if they were white.
By the time Plante said she was open to reviewing the department’s budget, there was a crisis of confidence between Montrealers and police. Some 39 per cent of Montrealers’ polled in 2020 said they were in favour of defunding the police and the city’s finance committee recommended a serious revision to the department’s budget.
That’s when the tide started to turn.
Sylvain Caron, appointed police chief after the Pichet debacle, told reporters in 2020 that he would make an effort to highlight the good work of officers in Montreal. Almost immediately following that announcement, there was an increase in stories about gun violence being shared with the media.
By 2021, headlines about Montreal’s “summer of gun violence” dominated the news, giving the impression that the city’s north and east ends had turned into an active war zone. While it’s true there was an increase in homicides last year — victims included children gunned down on the street — the statistics paint a more nuanced picture of the crisis.
For starters, the 36 homicides reported in Montreal last year fall squarely within the 20-year average for Montreal. The city’s homicide rate — one per 100,000 residents — is also half the national rate. All told, gun violence only increased by 3 per cent between 2018 and 2021.
In fact, overall gun crime is basically unchanged from 2018 (up only 3%). There are still reasons to be concerned. The most violent forms of gun crime have risen - murders and attempted murders. (The increase in "voies de fait" is mostly gunshots with no intended target.) 2/6 pic.twitter.com/fIC2oZbiFY— Ted Rutland (@TedRutland) September 6, 2022
Regardless of the facts, police brass and rank-in-file officers wrestled back control of the message, putting issues like gang violence or low morale among the officers at the centre of last fall’s municipal and federal elections. In the midst of the overlapping campaigns, Montreal police secured promises for millions in federal grants to fight gun violence.
Their cause was taken up by columnists in le Journal de Montréal, whose suburban readers are all too receptive to the idea that Montreal’s leftist mayor allowed the island to be overtaken by violent thugs.
In a borderline hysterical piece he wrote last month, Journal scribe Joseph Facal wrote that Plante had made the city a safe haven for “bandits” who “know they’re not dealing with Margaret Thatcher.”
Setting aside the ridiculous idea of two hardened criminals comparing Plante to a long-dead British prime minister, Facal isn’t joking. The columnist, who does not live in Montreal, is speaking to a swath of mostly off-island subscribers who overwhelmingly vote for the CAQ — a party with just one elected representative in Quebec’s biggest city.
The perception of Montreal as a lawless wasteland is exactly that, a perception. It just so happens to be playing into the CAQ’s “Rest-of-Quebec-versus-Montreal” messaging.
“We know a lot of the pressure on this issue is coming from off the island,” said one source at city hall. “But that has a real effect on how our citizens feel about their neighbourhoods. And you can’t have them losing confidence in their public security.”
Two sources close to the mayor say Montreal police are under tremendous pressure from within. The force is struggling to recruit new officers and keep current cops from being poached by other departments. Starting salaries for Montreal officers are lower than with the provincial police and the RCMP routinely poaches recruits from Quebec’s police academy since so many of the cadets are bilingual.
As a result, some vacancies at the Montreal police department are going unfilled. Over the past two years, the number of officers employed by the force dropped from just under 4,500 to about 4,350. Officers routinely leak internal memos about staffing shortages and poor working conditions to the press, highlighting instances where cops quit the force for better pay somewhere else.
“The thing about these 450 new officers is, they’re mostly going to plug holes throughout the department,” said Marvin Rotrand, a former city councillor who served on the public security committee alongside several police chiefs. “But yes, the size of the police department will grow, even if it’s just a bit.
“What’s happening — and why the bicycle path mayor is standing next to the law and order provincial government — is that the city’s budgets are about to get a lot tighter and they’ll take more policing money from Quebec if they can get it.”
The police’s annual budget increased from $647 million in 2018 to $679 million last year. The injection of a quarter billion dollars from Quebec City into department coffers will only accelerate that trend.
“You have to realize that this is essentially a political play for the CAQ,” said Sacha-Wilky Merazil, who sits on the youth council of Montréal-Nord, the city’s poorest and most ethnically diverse borough. “If the government was really interested in serving our community, would they commit an enormous amount of resources to the police without consulting any of us? It’s one thing, if they’re investing in community relations programs, but just more boots on the ground? I have a hard time seeing how that won’t end up with more repression.
“Right now there is no trust between police and youth, particularly Black youth. I’ve known people who’ve witnessed crimes but they won’t talk to detectives because all they see, in our neighbourhoods, is police repression. Think about how problematic that is.”
A system bursting at the seams
Montreal’s courts are buckling under the weight of our criminal justice system.
“We’re missing court clerks, judges, support staff. Just getting an open court room this morning was a challenge,” said Clara Daviault, vice president of the Association des Avocats de Défense de Montréal.
“There have been a number of Supreme Court decisions that are trying to address why, in such a safe society as ours, the number of people being held in pretrial detention has grown so quickly. So the burden falls on Crown prosecutors and police to prioritize the kinds of cases they want to go after. Ultimately, it’s up to them to decide whether they want to impose pre-trial detention or other measures that lock people up.
“I see how people might assume that more police will lead to more arrests, and more cases before the courts. If that’s the case, there will be calls — from within the court system — to invest in more infrastructure because what we have right now is barely cutting it. But there’s also a case you can make that a better-staffed police department will produce better arrests, backed by better evidence and that’s ultimately a good thing.”
Short term, investments in police often produce the desired effect. One American study suggests that for every 10 to 17 officers hired, a city sees one less homicide. But each new officer will add between seven and 22 “quality of life” arrests — minor offenses like public intoxication, drug possession or mischief.
Even if, as some sources suggest, these 450 officers only grow the department’s staff by a hundred new cops, that’s still anywhere between 1,000 and 2,000 new cases before the courts. It’s easy to get lost in the numbers but these are people entering a system that has a terrible track record of rehabilitation.
“When you’ve been in prison, it affects your ability to get a job, to find housing, it isolates you from your family,” said Desvignes, who volunteers at a legal information clinic for the homeless. “Jail makes your life — which was probably already hard — even harder. And once you’ve been churned through the courts, the risk that you’ll be arrested again and go back is alarmingly high. Especially if you’re living in poverty.”
For people who can’t afford an attorney, the court system exerts an enormous amount of pressure for them to just plead guilty and take a reduced sentence. There are only a few hundred legal aid lawyers in the Montreal area and they’re so underpaid that they went on a one-day strike last week.
But those are government employees who earn a salary and benefits for their work with the underprivileged. Most legal aid files go to private practice lawyers willing to accept just $600 per client.
“That’s $600 whether you prepare for 50 hours and go to trial or whether you just enter a guilty plea and move on to the next body,” Desvignes said. “That’s less than minimum wage. So obviously, there’s a financial incentive to keep it short and sweet, to plead out without contesting any of the evidence brought forward by the Crown.”
‘It was clear they were just stopping Black men and questioning them’
Police overreach isn’t just a theoretical concern for Merazil.
Just a few weeks ago, he was pulled over, dragged out of his car and handcuffed in front of his neighbours for refusing to identify himself. Merazil, who is Black, was on his way to bring his daughter Sunday dinner when police stopped him near his home in northeast Montreal and threatened to put him “in the cage.”
“I had just seen them stop another man, who had a bushy beard, long dreadlocks and wore thick glasses,” Merzil said. “I have short hair, I’m much taller than he is, I don’t wear glasses or have a beard. To me, it was clear they were just stopping Black men and questioning them.
“Yeah, I could have just given them my identification. Why do I have to prove my innocence when I’m driving home with chicken dinner? These are supposed to be police, not an armed force occupying our neighbourhoods.”
But Merazil isn’t bitter. He’s even open to the idea of more cops on the ground if they’re used in community relations roles rather than just patrolling the streets. A few weeks back, he even met with Isabelle Brais — the wife of Premier Legault — to give feedback on how the provincial government could be doing better in Montreal’s Black neighbourhoods.
“I told her there’s a political failure to protect young people in poor neighbourhoods,” Merazil said. “For years, we’ve been saying we need better after-school resources for kids, more programs, more sports, more arts and we’ve basically been getting crumbs. The violence we’re seeing today is a result of our failure to address those concerns.”
Merazil says Brais was kind and chose to spend their 90-minute meeting listening instead of droning on as so many politicians do. They told her about the lack of trust between cops and neighbourhood kids and they emphasized policing isn’t the only answer.
Days later, the premier made his $250 million pledge to the Montreal police. In the announcement, he added that Quebec will spend $17 million on crime prevention initiatives — about 6 per cent of what the police are getting.
Crime prevention isn’t as flashy as a column of graduating police cadets but experts say it’s probably a more important factor in fighting crime than just repression.
“People aren’t committing crimes because they’re bad, they’re committing crimes because they’re desperate,” said Ted Rutland, a Concordia University prof who researches police funding. “Putting more police on the street does nothing to address that desperation. And yet, that’s where more than 90 per cent of the money is going.”
Until recently, Jude-Alain Mathieu ran a crime prevention program out of a shipping container in Montréal-Nord. Mathieu uses sports to keep young people off the streets and surround them with adults who encourage the kids to stay in school.
But the sports infrastructure is so bad, in Montréal-Nord, that Mathieu had to buy a bunch of gym equipment and keep it in a container plopped behind a soccer field. When I visited the group, in July, they were lifting weights in the grass as children ran by with popsicles in their hands.
Run on an annual stipend of just $40,000 from the city, Mathieu has to constantly stand before bureaucrats and make his case for more funding every year. The group was recently awarded a $70,000 crime prevention grant from the Quebec government but, unless the system radically changes, they’ll never have the kind of support that police get.
‘We’re just putting out fires every day’
Back on the corners of Milton-Parc, Parent has been burning out.
After federal funding for his program imploded, his workload spiked.
“We’re just putting out fires every day,” Parent said. “But it’s a losing battle. When there were more of us on the ground, we could keep unhoused people off the street corners and out of trouble. There just aren’t enough of us and so, yeah, people call the police instead of working with us to find solutions. And that never ends well.”
In a way, Parent was lucky to serve his sentence in federal rather than provincial prison. The outreach worker used to be an addict who admits he stole, lied and conned his way through life before hitting rock bottom.
“When that door closes behind you and you know there’s a 10-year stretch ahead, it’s hard to describe the hopelessness of that moment,” said Parent, who is Cree from the Ontario side of James Bay. “It was in prison that I was able to connect with elders, re-discover my Indigenous roots and start to work towards sobriety. Jail was awful but at least they had programs to help rehabilitate us.
“I don’t think it was being locked up that helped, it was the programs. Those saved my life, those pushed me to want to change. But you’re not getting that in provincial jail. You’re just being thrown into a crowded cell block and kept there until it’s time to leave.
“The people I work with — the poorest of the poor, survivors of genocide and residential school — they don’t need to be arrested for some minor infraction and put through a system that only makes them better criminals. They need help and I don’t think that more police is what will do the job.
“I fear that, in the long run, it’ll just make things worse.”