Police violence

Police killings in Canada: anatomy of a crisis

Friends and relatives of victims gather in Montreal to call for justice and change
Photo: Simon Van Vliet

On Oct. 22, the Justice for Victims of Police Killings Coalition held its sixth annual commemorative vigil in Montreal.

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The event is not only about remembering lives tragically lost to police violence, but also raising awareness of the systemic problem of police brutality and impunity. The coalition has documented the cases of some 120 people who have been killed by police since 1987 in Montreal alone, but the problem is present across Quebec and widespread in the country — and beyond, as recent cases in the United States have shown.

‘I can’t breathe’

Standing at the foot of the steps of the Montreal police union building, Julie Matson was first to share her story. Her father, Ben, died in the custody of Vancouver police in 2002 after a verbal altercation with an off-duty police officer over a parking spot escalated. Matson was severely beaten by officers and handcuffed in a prone position.

According to his daughter’s account of the events, before Ben Matson suffocated on the contents of his stomach he was heard telling the officers, “I can not breathe” — echoing Eric Garner’s last words as he was choked to death by an NYPD officer last year.

“This is happening somewhere right now,” Matson said, highlighting the fact that her father is only one of countless parents, children and loved ones who die every year at the hands of police across the country.

As Matson pointed out, B.C. was recently found to have one of the highest rates of police-related and jail deaths in Canada. This year seven people have been shot dead by police in B.C.

In Quebec, 21 people have been killed or injured by police, according to government statistics, while the Ontario's Special Investigations Unit has taken on 266 cases so far, including six firearms deaths, 12 custody deaths and six vehicle deaths.

“Tonight we honour all these people,” said Bridget Tolley, an Indigenous woman from the Kitigan Zibi Anishnabe First Nation whose mother, Gladys, was struck and killed by a Surêté du Québec (Quebec provincial police) cruiser on Oct. 5, 2001.

Unsolved death

Turning to face a dozen Montreal police officers standing guard at the doorstep of their union building, Tolley recalled her “terrible experience with police” investigating her mother’s death.

Not only was she never allowed to see the body before the autopsy, she learned that the officer in charge of the investigation was the brother of the police officer who had hit Gladys Tolley with his car.

“That’s not right,” Tolley said, turning back to face the small crowd gathered in the street.

Justice for Victims of Police Killings Coalition sixth annual commemorative vigil in Montreal.
Simon Van Vliet

After being denied justice for her mother, Tolley joined Sisters in Spirit, a group that has been campaigning for years for justice for missing and murdered Aboriginal women in Canada.

Coincidentally, on the same night as the vigil was taking place in Montreal, Radio-Canada aired an investigative report revealing serious abuse of Aboriginal women by SQ officers in Val d’Or, less than 300 kilometres from the Kitigan Zibi First Nation, where Gladys Tolley was killed under suspicious circumstances. And as in Tolley’s case, fellow SQ officers reportedly led the investigation.

No peace in the heart without justice

“There is no peace in the heart of any of us,” said a friend of Daniel Satre, an American man who was beaten to death by police last year in Ballston Spa, N.Y.

“We’re not sure why the police was called,” she added, emphasising that her friend was in distress and needed help, not violence.

Satre’s case resembles that of Jean-François Nadreau, who was killed in his home three years ago. His girlfriend, Josiane Millette, had called 911 for an ambulance because she feared he was going to take his own life. Nadreau was shot to death by a Montreal police officer who couldn’t handle the mental health crisis at hand.

In a recent report, the Mental Health Commission of Canada stated that some current police methods are “outdated” when dealing with such crisis situations.

“If there’s a weapon available, it will kill somebody,” said Julie Matson, who calls for police use-of-force training to be thoroughly revised. She thinks “more empathetic methods” should be used, especially when dealing with mentally unstable people.

Also on the same night the vigil took place, the documentary Hold Your Fire was scheduled to air on CBC. According to a brief statement on the public broadcaster’s website, it was pulled off the air because the CBC believed “it could potentially undermine a fair trial currently before the courts.”

The statement is presumably referring to the case of Toronto police constable James Forcillo, who faces charges for Sammy Yatim’s fatal shooting in 2013. One scene in the documentary shows British police disarming a distraught man without using a gun.

Justice for Victims of Police Killings Coalition vigil
Simon Van Vliet

A very similar situation, which occurred in Montreal last year, led to the violent death of Alain Magloire.

Another distressed man, Robert Dziekanski, was tasered to death by RCMP constable Kwesi Millington at Vancouver International Airport in 2007. It is worth noting that the officer was sentenced this year to 30 months in prison, although not for manslaughter or homicide but rather on a charge of perjury and colluding with his fellow officers at an inquiry into the death.

Police obstruction tactics during investigations into suspicious police-related deaths have been criticized for years, including in the high-profile case of a public coroner’s investigation into Fredy Villanueva’s death. A case against the Ontario provincial police was recently taken to the Supreme Court, which ruled that police officers could not have their notes vetted by an attorney before submitting them to the oversight body investigating a police-related death.

Quebec has plans to implement an independent investigations bureau next year, but critics fear that this new mechanism will not be sufficient to end the systemic impunity with which police officers use — and sometimes abuse — lethal force in this country.

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