On August 10, 2008, a riot occurred in Montreal-North following a brutal police intervention that took the life of Fredy Villanueva, a young man of Honduran origin. Images of fires on street corners and burning cars were picked up by many media outlets, putting a spotlight on Montreal-North and influencing Quebec public opinion. This revolt gave birth to Montreal-Nord Republik, a collective with a different voice that denounces social and economic injustice in this neighbourhood.
What is Montréal-North?
Montreal-North is a small borough situated at the north-east of the Island of Montreal, with 85 000 inhabitants. The proportion of low-income people is around 40%, compared to 29% for the city of Montreal as a whole. Moreover, the unemployment rate is 33%, higher than the average, and life expectancy is six years lower than average. Montreal-North is often considered a suburb containing neighbourhoods that can be described as typical North American middle-class areas. However, among them we can find “islands” of poverty that are geographically and socially marginalized.
It’s in the north-east part of the borough that we find a particularly densely-populated neighbourhood, characterized by its apartment blocks. This zone, referred to as “The Bronx” by the Montreal police, is similar to other peripheral urban communities populated mainly by poor immigrants. Indeed, this zone was developed to welcome recently arrived immigrants to Quebec, motivated by employers’ demand for labour, leading to an accelerated urbanization of the borough. The immigrant population arrived with aspirations for the “Canadian dream.” However, the experience of most North-Montrealers has been different; their integration into society has been, for most, unsuccessful.
Despite the difficult economic situation, the “hood” has its own culture and demonstrates a unique solidarity. Its flavour is a result of the mixing of cultures and the evolution of an informal economy with its unwritten rules. This mixture can be seen in its food, music, slang and accents. It is also important to mention that Montreal-North is recognized for its big influence as the source of Quebec’s hip-hop culture. This culture is manifested in how residents make claims and organize.
On Saturday, August 9, 2008, Montreal police officer Jean-Loup Lapointe (badge number 3776) went into the parking lot next to Henri Bourassa Park, in the so called “hood.” He saw four youth — Danny Villanueva, his brother Fredy, and two other friends –, some of them playing dice. During an intervention that lasted less than one minute, Lapointe got out of his vehicle, called Danny Villanueva, and fired four shots, hitting three of the young men. Denis Méas, whose father is Cambodian, was shot in the arm; Jeffrey Sagor-Métellus, of Haitian origin, was hit in the back; and Fredy Villanueva, 18 years old, of Honduran origin, was mortally wounded in the chest.
The next day, neighbours gathered in the same park with the intention of showing their frustration. The demonstration quickly turned into a riot on the main streets of the neighbourhood. This riot, that some compared with the popular urban uprisings in France, was the first of its kind in Quebec and Canada. It is from this fire that Montréal-Nord Republik (MNR) was born. MNR’s founders were concerned people who got together to articulate issues of social injustice, racial profiling and discrimination and denounce the lack of political representation from Montreal North’s mayor, who denied the existence of social problems in the borough.
The first important action of the collective was the presentation of the following claims at Montreal-North city hall: the resignation of the Mayor, who is unable to represent his population; an independent public inquiry into Villanueva’s death; the end of racial and social profiling practices by the Montreal police; an art piece in memory of Freddy that will value the culture of the neighbourhood; and the recognition of the fact that as long as there is economic insecurity, there will be social instability. This last claim has become a principle for the collective, framing their actions to denounce the consequences of poverty as well as the effects of austerity measures on the community.
As expected, the reaction from the mayor, and even from the majority of community groups, was at first to ignore MNR’s claims. Then they opted for a co-optation strategy to cover up the situation, creating programs based on clientelism that were not addressing the core issues. Thus MNR became one of the only direct interlocutors that denounced police racial profiling as well as the inaction of elected politicians and community groups.
During 2008 and 2009, the collective kept up the fight to have a public inquiry into Fredy’s death, in association with other Montreal groups that fought police repression and brutality. This demand was won in 2009. The inquiry lasted for around a year and a half, but the final report has still not appeared, leaving the case unresolved. Over the years that followed, the indirect influence of MNR can be seen in the production of reports on racial profiling by police force as well as proposed law reforms that aim to end the practice of police investigating the police in cases like Fredy’s. Since 2008, the fight for justice has never stopped. Indeed, it was not enough to have a public inquiry, with no real result; the Villanueva family and the community need justice and a better understanding of the situation.
One of MNR’s goals is to never forget what happened on August 9, which has become an emblematic date not only for the collective but also for the neighbourhood. Every year, activists and citizens have gathered at Fredy’s memorial, asking for justice for Villanueva as well as for other victims of police violence. On the first anniversary of Villanueva’s death, MNR in collaboration with other activists organized Hoodstock, the first social-cultural forum in Montreal-North. This local forum allowed people to discuss social and political questions related to the reality of Montreal-North. The same initiative was repeated in 2010, on a smaller scale but with a more significant participation of the neighbourhood’s diverse population. Other actions have included demonstrations and rallies in the neighbourhood, asking for justice and keeping Fredy’s memory alive.
Even if during the first years the majority of MNR’s actions were linked with Fredy’s death, the collective had developed a broader discourse denouncing the social and economic injustice that most of its members have faced and that the community is still facing. In recent years, actions have become smaller; however, they continue to nourish political reflection through cultural activities such as film screenings.
The MNR experience
Members have been shaped by events and struggles, starting with the riots of 2008. MNR’s experience has been one of members’ transformation, from normal citizens to “activists,” developing a different but stronger link with the “hood.” The activists of MNR are quite different from the members of most activist groups. This can be explained by one of the particularities of the collective: the absence of the white male dominance that can be found in other left organizations. Moreover, for most MNR members, the fight for justice for victims of police violence was their first political experience. This characteristic helped to create in the collective a different political atmosphere, where members of different ethnic groups could forge stronger bonds of solidarity, respecting differences and going through a learning process as a collective.
Another characteristic of the organization is the influence of Montreal-North culture on the members’ interactions and activities. Indeed, the hip-hop cultural elements have been a pillar of the rallies, demonstrations, forums and other outreach actions. For example, a song was made by Montreal-North hip-hop artists in memory of Fredy, and it was performed at more than one demonstration. Hoodstock is also a good example of the influence of this hip-hop culture. This forum also offered local artists a space to share their music and their unique way of communicating their message.
One of the challenges experienced by the collective has been how to effectively address racial profiling and discrimination in the context of a liberal society in which individual rights are seen as already protected by the legal system. Through its spokespersons, Will Prosper and Nargess Mustapha, MNR has questioned the structural manifestations of oppression, as seen in the Fredy Villanueva case in which a police officer can kill an innocent Latino and face no charges or consequences. The spokespersons have also brought new voices and faces to Quebec’s social movements, increasing the diversity of struggles and perspectives.
The politicization of the collective and members of the community has opened the door to what we can call a “left pole” in Montreal-North, which was a political desert before MNR. This pole is an opportunity to build stronger links with Quebec social movements, putting forward the reality of the Montreal-North community. Most importantly, it is the result of the evolution of the community’s political awareness. MNR has definitely influenced the history of the neighbourhood, having as its main engagement to continue to denounce injustices experienced by members of the community and to develop an alternative political discourse that will reflect popular interests.
Alejandra Zaga is a member of Montreal-Nord Republik.