Now that she’s a mother, Sophie Vallée Desbiens says she doesn’t ever want her son to go through the same sort of repression she faced as a protester in Montreal.
As a nurse and volunteer medic at protests, she would often treat protesters who were batoned or pepper sprayed by police. On May 1, 2013 she was among a group of over 400 that were arrested while marching in the annual protest for International Workers Day.
She’s now among thousands who will soon be owed damages and an apology from the city of Montreal, acknowledging its administration and police violated fundamental human rights through mass arrests at protests over 2011 and 2015.
It’s all part of a settlement agreement for 16 long running class actions launched in response to the widespread use of “kettling” by Montreal police — the practice of surrounding masses of protesters and indiscriminately arresting everyone in the group. Quebec’s Superior Court is expected to approve the settlement sometime this year.
“I have mixed feelings,” said Desbiens, one of the plaintiffs in the class actions. “I hope it’s not all empty words.”
Many of the arrests were facilitated through the now abolished protest law P6. The bylaw was hotly contested after it was updated in 2012 to demand an itinerary of the protest route be provided to police ahead of time. There were hefty fines for those taking part in protests without one.
Police brutality was common at the protests over the years. The use of chemical irritants and stun grenades for crowd control and batoning sent many to hospital. For one protester a stun grenade to the face resulted in a permanent eye injury from a detached retina in 2012 and another lost his eye when he was hit by a rubber bullet that same year. Officers were seriously injured in the conflict as well.
“The message it sent was that if you take to the street to express that you disagree with police brutality, you can be deprived of your rights, and even though it’s not justified, there is absolute impunity,” she said. “And the justice system was an accomplice.”
In some cases groups of over 500 would be circled and detained, with infractions for attending a protest without an itinerary being the primary ground for arrest. Citizens would often be prevented from leaving as soon as the protest was declared illegal over loud speaker.
Thinking back to that May Day in Montreal’s Old Port, Desbiens said she felt like it was “her turn” to be arrested. A man had suffered head trauma after being roughed up by police, and she needed to call an ambulance. Officers ultimately refused to transport him to hospital, telling paramedics that since Desbiens was a nurse she was well equipped to monitor him.
From there the group of 446 were hauled onto STM buses, en route to the SPVM’s operational centre on Langelier Boulevard near Anjou. Officers searched everyone, even asking her to remove her shoes. Her medical supplies and cell phone were confiscated. Desbiens stayed until nearly midnight before being issued a $637 ticket and let go, six hours later. She had to agree to be filmed before she could take back her belongings and leave.
Detention at the police operational centre was a common practice at mass arrests over those years, with the poor conditions inside the buses mentioned across many of the class actions.
Protesters were often detained for several hours without having access to water, washrooms, or the right to call their lawyers, court documents allege. They would have their hands tied with plastic tie wraps throughout their detainment, even while having to urinate outside without much privacy. The conditions prompted medical emergencies like hypoglycemic attacks in some cases.
“It was ridiculous, all of this for a P6 infraction,” Desbiens said. “Drunk drivers get better treatment.”
Bystanders were also caught up in the arrests. “In my bus there were tourists. There was a Japanese man that couldn’t speak French or English,” she said. “He had no clue what was going on. His experience of the city must have been really traumatizing.”
A growing student movement was mobilizing
The city of Montreal has agreed to pay out $6 million in damages to the protesters, following an executive committee decision last October.
The current settlement involves 18 groups detained by police, where 3,162 tickets were issued. The amount each person will receive will depend on how many times they were arrested — and much of the $6 million will also go toward paying the lawyers involved.
Kettling became the go-to method by Montreal police to repress what were daily protests that could last late in the night throughout much of 2012 — a time when the student movement against tuition hikes mobilized tens of thousands onto the streets.
Throughout that March more than 300,000 post-secondary students in Quebec were on strike to counter a 75 per cent tuition increase proposed under Jean Charest’s government. According to police estimates more than 700 protests were held in Montreal that year. It was in that context that the protest law was updated that May to demand that an itinerary be provided ahead of time, said Lynda Khelil of the Montreal-based human rights non-profit, Ligue des droits et libertés.
Whereas, before P6, police could only proceed with mass arrests in cases of danger to public safety, peace and order, now the refusal alone to not disclose an itinerary became enough. The minimum fine on tickets was raised to $500, while a ban on face coverings was also put in place. Many refused to comply.
“A protest shouldn’t need to be negotiated alongside a police service. It’s a means to control the protest,” Khelil said. “It gave police the discretion and power to decide which protests could happen.”
The human rights group was among many across civil society that immediately called for its repeal. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association and Quebec Bar were also quick to point out that it violated the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Now the group’s spokesperson, she first became involved as an activist after being arrested herself. It happened so many times over 2013 and 2015 that she struggled to keep count. “It might have been seven times,” said Khelil, who went on to write her master’s thesis on the history of the controversial protest law and mass arrests in the city.
A total of 3,943 P6 tickets were handed out over 2012 and 2015, according to her estimates. Many of the mass arrests those years were also facilitated under violations of the Highway Safety Code.
While the law dissuaded many from protesting, it had the opposite effect on Khelil.
“It didn’t turn me away from protesting, it enraged me,” she said. “It forced me to look more deeply at the type of abuses police were being permitted to engage in.”
The city soon faced accusations of political profiling as time revealed many protests were in fact tolerated despite not having an itinerary disclosed ahead of time. Over 2013 and 2014 in Montreal there were 116 protests, the group revealed in a 2015 report.
At times mass arrests came in response to vandalism that had become common at nightly “Maple Spring” protests and those against police brutality. Some faced criminal charges. But in many cases, Montreal police simply resorted to kettling as a means to put an end to peaceful protests.
“They used it as a pretext to arrest hundreds of people,” Khelil said. “The real motivation was to repress movements that the police didn’t support.”
Starting in 2008, Montreal’s annual protest against police brutality resulted in mass arrests for nine consecutive years in a row.
The protest was also the first I ever attended. As a young CEGEP student in 2014, I’m sure it struck me as a worthy cause. I didn’t know anything about how previous marches had resulted in smashed storefront windows, flipped over police vehicles or that the day had essentially become synonymous with mass arrests.
Like many protests back then, it was declared illegal over a mega speaker just a few short minutes into marching.
Next thing police charged the crowd, banging their shields and rushing us from Jean-Talon Street in a move to corner us south. The protest had been organized by the Jean-Talon metro that year after a viral video began making the rounds showing officers in the area threatening to tie a homeless man to a pole in the freezing cold.
We were told if we stayed any longer that was illegal, but we didn’t have any genuine opportunity to leave either.
There was no getting through those shields, the kettle reinforced by cops on horses. We stayed there for four hours as a police helicopter passed over. Gradually, STM buses were hauled in to act as mini police stations — creating an assembly line for each protester, who would be forced to pass through them on their way out with a ticket in hand.
For those caught in multiple protests declared illegal, those tickets could go as high as $3,000. Considering all the logistics involved, Khelil said it’s not unreasonable to suggest Montreal police would decide well in advance which protests would end in mass arrests.
‘It was an attack on my dignity and my human rights’
By 2013, Montreal’s courthouse was flooded with a wave of people contesting their tickets, a growing number of class action lawsuits and challenges against the constitutionality of the law.
“It was an attack on my dignity and my human rights,” said Sandrine Ricci, another plaintiff who was arrested at a police brutality protest in 2013. “I didn’t want to see this continue with impunity.”
By 2015, the city had dropped all the charges resulting from P6, including 2,000 cases that February following the acquittal of three protesters earlier that month.
The protesters represented themselves, arguing that since they weren’t the organizers of the protest they shouldn’t be held responsible for providing an itinerary — something the judge Randall Richmond agreed with.
“They never anticipated that many people would mobilize together,” Khelil said. “People were defending themselves, and that put a lot of pressure on the court.”
Following the decision, then Mayor Denis Coderre was quick to assure the public P6 would continue to be enforced. And by the time the annual police brutality protest rolled around, the mass arrests had picked up again. But the law soon fell out of use, with 2015 ultimately being the last year a Montreal protest has ever ended in mass arrest.
Activists were still committed to seeing the law repealed, and recognition from the city that abuses were committed through it.
“We said, ‘No, it’s not going to go down like that,’” Desbiens said. “You cannot instrumentalize the police and court system to repress political protest, and just get off that easily. You used the system to oppress us. We’re going to use the system as well to try to get retribution.”
By 2016, a Quebec Superior Court decision invalidated the section of the law prohibiting the wearing of face coverings. A Quebec Appeal Court judge also later ruled that providing an itinerary wasn’t constitutional in 2018. It still took until 2019 for the law to be officially abolished by new Mayor Valerie Plante.
With the first version of Montreal’s protest law passed in 1969, it marked a major win for the right to protest in the city, the Ligue des droits et libertés said at the time.
The anti-protest bylaw was also adopted during a time of social upheaval, following riots like the “Night of Terror,” when Montreal police and firefighters went on strike prompting 16 hours of unrest. The same day the law was passed an order was issued against protests for the next 30 days, which was unsurprisingly met with civil disobedience.
The law was also subject to legal battles. By 1970 a Quebec Superior Court judge declared it unconstitutional — but the decision was later overturned by an appeal court judge in 1974, restricting the right to protest in Canada’s second largest city.
A Quebec Appeal Court decision that came out prior to the height of the mass arrests in 2012 should have in theory put an end to the detainment of protesters at kettles, and the SPVM’s operational centre, too. In 2011, the highest court in the province ordered the city of Montreal pay $195,000 in damages to a group of 78 protesters after they were arrested and detained for hours at a police station in the summer of 1996. But despite the judge ruling the detention of the citizens then was unjustified and violated their rights to dignity, that didn’t at all dissuade police from continuing the practice.
“Despite that decision, between 2011 and 2015, they still arrested about 5,000 people using that technique,” said Marc Chetrit, one of the lawyers involved in eight of the 16 class actions. "In the end, we are proud to have built upon Julius Grey's work in the (2011) Kavanaght case, in order to ensure that citizens never fear being arrested for exercising their freedom of expression and peaceful assembly as guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”
No apology expected from Montreal police
Under the settlement the city has agreed to keep a public apology on their website for 90 days. Protesters hope politicians will go above and beyond that.
“We would have never agreed to the settlement had it not included a promise from the city to apologize,” Ricci said, also a PhD candidate at Université du Québec à Montréal. “If it was only about the money, we wouldn’t have agreed.”
“It needs to be acknowledged that the police adopted practices that attacked our fundamental rights, that those practices were anti-democratic.”
And while protesters are relieved the city has agreed to publish an apology, many said it’s the Montreal police that needs to acknowledge its role in the abuses.
“I’m a bit disappointed it’s not the Montreal police,” said Patrick Cadorette, one of the protesters represented in two class actions. “P6 was adopted by the city, but it was the police that committed the abuse, and that might not be recognized in the apology.
“We need to acknowledge what happened so that history doesn’t repeat itself.”
“I have mixed feelings,” Desbiens said about the coming apology, saying she doubts the police will change its culture of repressing social movements.
“I don’t have any confidence that they’ll become less repressive.”
This article was originally published in The Rover, Christopher Curtis’s investigative journalism project.