As police searched her lunchbox and stroller, six-year-old Océanne Giroux-Gonçalves cried and watched officers rough up a fellow demonstrator.
‘Is that what war is like?’ Océanne asked her mother after the march.
‘Do police officers kill children?’
On 1 May last year, children and adults up to age 80 with reduced mobility were attacked from behind by around 30 Montreal riot squad police while peacefully and festively walking in support of International Workers’ Day.
‘I thought the police were there to help us as citizens, but now I’m scared of them,’ said 56-year-old Lise Rozon, who was hit on the back of her arm and left with a bruise the size of a plate.
Since then, demonstrator Sophie Sénécal has compiled testimonies of abuse from that day to support her complaint to the Montreal Police Service about its conduct. The deadline for her to submit it is 1 May 2009. ‘This complaint needs to be filed to avoid the same thing happening at this year’s May Day demonstration,’ says Manuel Almeida, a member of Montreal’s Collective Opposed to Police Brutality (COBP). Yet the history of police brutality in Montreal suggests the problem isn’t going away any time soon. In April 2002, police arrested hundreds of anti-G8 demonstrators before they even started marching. The largescale arrests received the condemnation of the United Nations Human Rights Committee, which reported that it is the State’s responsibility to ensure that ‘only those committing criminal offences during demonstrations are arrested’.
It also gained the attention of two local academics, who filed a class action lawsuit against the City. Yet seven years later, the lawsuit has not fully seen the light of day. Although it was authorized by the Quebec Superior Court in 2007, last August the City made a motion for the case to be dismissed, claiming the class action was deposited too late. In Montreal it is not that unusual for judgments to take this long; it took the police ethics committee 10 years to suspend temporarily two officers for negligence over the death of a homeless man.
Perhaps most raw in Montreal’s conscience is the killing of an unarmed 18-year-old, Fredy Villanueva, by police gunfire last year. In December, both officers involved in the incident were cleared of criminal charges. So this February the Villanueva family filed a lawsuit against the City and the involved police officers. The COBP has cited this case as the 43rd death at the hands of Montreal police since 1987.
Meanwhile, since January 2009 the City of Montreal has been considering bylaws to increase officers’ rights and restrict those of the public, including making it illegal to insult police officers on the job or to wear certain face coverings at public gatherings.
This doesn’t make Marie-Claude Giroux or her daughter Océanne feel any safer. Giroux says that the events of last May Day made her realize that social control is tighter than ever in Montreal. ‘I ask myself what kind of democracy we live in. I never thought I would see this happen to my daughter in Canada.’