Montreal police, following a series of court rebukes over their use of mass arrests to routinely shut down peaceful protests, used undercover officers to infiltrate a small student protest on Friday, Dec. 18.
By the time the dust had settled, these undercover officers had sent one protester to the hospital, arbitrarily detained and assaulted another in front of several journalists and pulled a gun and pointed it at another group of unarmed protesters. All three of these stories were reported separately in various Montreal newspapers, but here for the first time is the full story of what happened that night.
Shortly after 8 p.m. a small crowd of about 100 people gathered in Square Émilie-Gamelin in downtown Montreal for a protest against austerity. The crowd included at least a half-dozen undercover police officers, according to accounts from various witnesses.
“Everything was off and strange,” says Katie Nelson, a Concordia University student who finished the night in the hospital after being assaulted by a man she identifies as one of the police officers she is currently suing for "persistent physical, verbal and sexual harassment and political profiling" in a lawsuit launched in 2013. She contends that he and others have been engaged in an escalating campaign of harassment and intimidation towards her since she filed the lawsuit.
One source confirmed to Ricochet that at least one of the undercover officers present on Dec. 18 matches the description of an officer involved in Nelson’s lawsuit: agent Jérémy Hurteau. The Montreal police, in an email response to a series of questions posed by Ricochet, declined to confirm the identities of any of the officers involved in the Dec. 18 operation.
Jennifer Bobette, an activist with the Collective Opposed to Police Brutality who has also accused the police of repeatedly targeting her, and is suing the Montreal force for bodily injury and material and non-material damages, says she spotted a few undercover police officers right as the march began.
She and Nelson both say they saw a group of hooded men at the back of the march strangely grouped between the protesters and the police. Several other witnesses also report seeing up to eight suspected undercover police officers in and around the march.
Photographs published online and in media reports show several individuals who identified themselves as police officers wearing masks, in apparent violation of a 2012 Montreal bylaw against covering one’s face during a protest.
The Montreal police declined to answer whether the undercover officers wore masks on Dec. 18, stating that such information is confidential. (“Cette information est de nature policière,” they wrote in French.)
The police did confirm that undercover officers were used on this evening, and that one of them pulled a gun on protesters. However, they declined to confirm how many undercover officers were deployed, and whether any of the officers involved had filed “use of force” reports, which are required when a police officer uses physical force on a citizen.
The Montreal police also declined to answer any questions about who authorized this operation.
Some witnesses believe that the clashes that erupted between police and protesters may have been instigated by undercover provocateurs.
“I saw masked cops throwing rocks,” Bobette says. Unusually powerful firecrackers were shot at police, says Nelson, who suspects they might have been deployed by provocateurs. Police retaliated with tear gas and stun grenades to disperse the crowd.
The police did not respond directly when asked whether any of the undercover agents had committed illegal acts, or incited others to commit illegal acts.
Protester Simon Dugrenier says he did not hear the police declare the march illegal, but that cops started chasing protesters before the march had gone far. “The protest dispersed really quickly,” he says.
Police used tactical manoeuvres to disperse the crowd early in the evening, and the protest was broken up at the corner of Maisonneuve and Panet streets sometime around 9 p.m.
Nelson says “everything was calm” as the march scattered into smaller groups. Then, she says, she recognized one of the undercover officers, identifying him as one of those named in her lawsuit when he pulled down his mask to speak to someone. “He was trying to get us back into the street,” she says. The situation escalated after Nelson started calling out the man’s name and pointing out he was an undercover cop.
As Nelson turned to walk away she was tackled to the ground. A witness to the incident told Concordia’s student newspaper the Link that he saw what he believed to be an undercover cop push her. Bobette, who was with Nelson at that point, helped her up. She says that they soon found themselves surrounded by riot police on a sidewalk and that she, Nelson and three other protesters were held for about 15 to 20 minutes, after which she accompanied Nelson to hospital in an ambulance.
A photo taken by freelance photographer Martin Ouellet appears to show the moment Nelson was attacked and shows a man wearing light blue jeans, a dark coat and a grey hood with arms outstretched behind her as she falls. A subsequent photo by the same photographer shows a man wearing the same clothes but with his mask down. Nelson has posted a photograph to Facebook juxtaposing this photograph with a photograph of a uniformed police officer she asserts is Hurteau. There appears to be a strong resemblance between the men in the two images.
Video of a different encounter between undercover officers and protesters appears to show the same masked man alleged to be Hurteau using pepper spray on protestors before retreating behind a line of riot cops.
Another juxtaposition of photos may identify another undercover officer. Nelson asserts that he is Philip Touchette, another agent named in her lawsuit, and publicly available photos of Touchette bear a strong resemblance to the undercover officer. The Montreal police have refused to confirm or deny the identities of these or any other officers deployed that night.
Police did confirm that Nelson was transported to Saint-Luc hospital by ambulance, but argued that her “fall to the ground was not caused by police intervention.” (In French, they wrote “une chute sur la chaussée non provoquée par l’intervention policière.”)
Confronting police infiltrators
Tension mounted as people started outing protesters they believed to be police officers. Activist Chantal Saumur says that at the corner of Panet and Maisonneuve she and other protesters confronted a couple of presumed undercover officers that she says she had seen being aggressive towards a protester earlier — without any intervention from uniformed police on the scene.
She explained that she and a group of other protesters walked up to the masked men. “We questioned them,” she says. After a moment, she turned around and saw one officer pointing a handgun at unarmed protesters and motioning them to move back. “It was unreal,” she says. Other witnesses to the incident have told a similar story.
Police confirmed that an undercover officer pulled his gun, and told Ricochet that an internal investigation into the incident is ongoing.
At Square Émilie-Gamelin after the protest had ended, Dugrenier saw two presumed undercover police officers standing across the street from the metro entrance and took pictures of them with his phone. While Dugrenier was walking to his car, the two men caught up with him. Without identifying themselves, they grabbed Dugrenier under the arms and smashed his face onto the hood of a parked car, before dragging him off to a parking lot.
“My photographer and I saw him forcefully pushed against a wall as he was handcuffed,” Jonathan Caragay-Cook, news editor at the Link newspaper, testified in a written statement compiled by CUTV News journalist William Ray and provided to Ricochet.
A photo published in the Link appears to show a masked man with a grey hood and dark jacket manhandling Dugrenier.
In one of the rare first-hand descriptions of that night, Cook published an account of several acts of police violence and repression that he witnessed.
Mainstream media misses the story
Initial mainstream media reports, however, were “totally clueless” about all this, Nelson points out. “They seemed to have missed [the story] completely.”
Shortly after 10 p.m., the Gazette published a report, mostly sourced from police, suggesting only that there had been “clashes between a small group of protesters and riot police.” Also quoting police sources, CBC reported the next day that “at least one person was transported by ambulance to hospital” and that protesters who “fell while running during the demonstration” were injured. CTV News reported that two “protesters were treated for minor injuries.”
In fact, Nelson was held in hospital overnight. She says two separate medical examinations revealed she suffered a severe concussion and tendon damage in her left arm, which was still in a splint when Ricochet interviewed her on Jan. 10. Nelson has launched a crowdfunder to help cover legal and medical bills incurred as a result of the incident.
In the days that followed, various media outlets did report on these three incidents, covering the assault on Nelson, the assault on Dugrenier and the incident with the gun, but without connecting them to each other or the larger police operation.
Dugrenier says a medical evaluation concluded he suffered a concussion, tendinitis of the shoulder, a sprained wrist and a split lip, in addition to post-traumatic stress. He was detained for hours without charges and says he overheard the police discussing what they should accuse him of.
He was released in the early hours of the next morning after signing a promise to appear on intimidation charges, under section 423.1 of the Criminal Code. (“Intimidation of a justice system participant” is the same charge that was used when Bobette was arrested in front of the Montreal municipal courthouse on June 17, 2014.) When he was released from custody, Dugrenier found out he was also charged under section 6 of municipal bylaw P-6 for having failed to “immediately comply with the order of a peace officer to leave the scene of an assembly.”
For peaceful involvement in an anti-austerity protest, Dugrenier has been fined hundreds of dollars for violation of a bylaw and charged with a criminal offence punishable by up to 14 years of imprisonment, whereas the police officers deployed seem unlikely to face any consequences for their actions.
What happened on Dec. 18 raises serious questions about police accountability.
The Montreal police have defended the actions of their officers as justified, but have left many questions unanswered. There is no indication the evening’s incidents have been referred to an outside police force for investigation, as is common when police officers are accused of unjustified use of force.
“These were men of extreme violence,” says Saumur, noting that their anonymity seems to have increased the sense of impunity already widespread among police officers in Canada. “It’s like police impunity just increased a thousandfold.”