(May be reprinted with permission).
Bony Jean-Pierre, a 47-year-old Black man, was shot in the head by a rubber bullet by the tactical squad of the Service de la police de Montréal (SPVM) in Montréal-Nord over the weekend. He died this morning in the hospital. It occurred during a minor drug-bust, and numerous witnesses report he was un-armed and posed no physical threat to law enforcement.
Racist double standards surround marijuana
Since the story broke, media outlets have already begun to justify the violent intervention and resulting fatal injury because marijuana was found at the site . Yet it appears there two different sets of rules for white and Black-skinned persons in Canada. Amidst general public acceptance of cannabis use, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s well-received plan to decriminalize marijuana, those who grow and sell cannabis are preparing themselves to be legitimate businesspersons, and are represented as burgeoning entrepreneurs in the media. Cannabis is sold ‘for medical purposes’, in storefronts all over the island of Vancouver.
But Black Canadians are still vilified and represented as dangerous criminals for their perceived or real involvement with the same substance. Black communities continue to be subjected to highly orchestrated, militarized police raids by tactical squads and SWAT teams. Black individuals thought to be involved the distribution of cannabis continue to be seen as deserving of any police violence inflicted upon them, up to and including injury and death. Jean-Pierre Bony is dead because of a bust surrounding a substance used recreationally by large numbers of Canadians, across race and class; yet his tragic and unjustifiable death has so far been represented as a minor detail. Black life, after all, is cheap in Canada, and Montreal is not exempt.
The War on Blacks
Studies show that white persons in Canada are actually documented to be more likely to sell and use drugs than Black(1). Yet Black lives have been disproportionately represented in surveillance, drug arrests and incarceration since Brian Mulroney declared a “war” on illegal drugs in the late 1980s(2). The ‘war’ on drugs has not been a metaphor for Black persons in Canada, and it is easy to see why it is referred to by so many as the ‘War on Blacks’.
A recent study of SPVM arrests of Black and white youth in Montreal found that Black youth are seven times more likely to be arrested for possessing or selling marijuana than white teenagers. This was found to be caused by the over-surveillance of Black youth, not by their over-involvement in the behaviour (3). This is corroborated by a leaked internal police report revealed that in 2006-7, at least 30-40% of all Black youth in St. Michel and Montreal-Nord had been subjected to ‘random’ identity checks, as compared to 5% of whites (4). A 2011 investigation by the Commission des droits de la personne et droits de la jeunesse Quebec found that young Black persons had difficulty accessing public space such as parks or metros without being harassed or told to disperse. Similar practices in Toronto have been compared to South Africa’s apartheid-era passbook laws by Ontario criminologists and Justice Harry Laforme. This heavy policing is often justified by perceived associations between Black communities, danger, drugs and gangs; despite the fact that in 2009, only 1.6% of reported crime was related to street-gang activity. Yet Over-policing leads to racially disproportionate incarceration; the most recent report by the Office of the Correctional Investigator found that Black persons are now incarcerated at a rate of three times their percentage within the Canadian population and Black incarceration rates have skyrocketed, having increased by 69% between 2005 and 2015.
Despite increasing public acceptance, drug arrests of low-level players have actually continued to rise in past decades. In 2011, more than half of drug arrests (60%) involved marijuana, and arrests for trafficking, production and distribution were eight times higher than thirty years ago (5). And though the buying and selling of drugs is a consensual and victim-less act, drug arrests are often militarized affairs by highly armed tactical squads and SWAT teams.
This occurs despite the fact that public health and human rights experts around the world are increasingly calling for the decriminalization of all controlled substances; even beyond cannabis. A report by John Hopkins University and The Lancet came out last week decrying the countless unnecessary lives lost or destroyed due to overdose, HIV/AIDS, and the mass incarceration of Black persons for low-level drug offenses; all of which are the result of nearly forty years of drug prohibition. Drug prohibition has now caused far more harms than the pharmacological make-up of any drug.
Now the so-called war on drugs has taken yet another victim as collateral damage. The death of Jean-Pierre Bony is only part of a larger vilification and devaluation of Black persons in Canada.
Black bodies destroyed by police violence
The senseless deaths of Black persons at the hands of the police, and the clearing of any wrong-doing for police officers is not new to Montreal’s Black community. Following the death of Black teenager Anthony Griffin, who was shot the head and killed in 1987, it was revealed publicly that the municipal police had been placing photos of Black people over their targets.
Leslie Presley, a 26-year-old Black Jamaican man, was killed by the Montreal police at a downtown bar in 1990. Marcellus Francois, an un-armed 24-year-old Jamaican man, was shot to death with an M-16 machine gun in 1991; though he was un-armed, and indeed not the man sought by police, the officer responsible was cleared of all charges. Fritzgerald Forbes, a Black man of Jamaican died at age 22, in1991, of cardio respiratory arrest shortly after being arrested for, in Parc-Extension; In 1993, Trevor Kelly, a 43-year old Jamaican man, lost his life by being shot in the back by the Montreal police. Rohan Wilson, an Black migrant from Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, died in N.D.G. at 28 in 2004, from what the coroner’s report called an “accidental violent death” caused by alcohol intoxication, following a police intervention which involved six officers. In 2007, Quilem Régistre, a Black Montrealer, sped through a stop light and crashed into a car, was subsequently tasered numerous times by the police, and died four days later in the hospital.(5) Alain Magoire was shot and killed by Montreal police in 2013; a forty-one-year old Black homeless man in the midst of a mental health crisis, wielding only a hammer. Yet again the officers were not charged
When Racist Police Investigate Racist Police
It is nearly impossible to have faith in the investigations surrounding police killings in Montreal. In the province of Quebec, there is no neutral oversight body when police kill. Instead, the Montreal police are investigated by the provincial policing body, the Sûreté du Québec (SQ). The SQ routinely exonerates police officers of any wrong-doing following their investigations, in what activists and legal experts call a clear conflict of interest. The SQ is currently under scrutiny for numerous allegations of sexual assault, abuse, and gratuitous violence towards indigenous women all over Quebec, apparently spanning decades. As such, the ‘neutrality’ of appointing this body to investigate possible police abuses of racialized persons is laughable. Given this context, it is unlikely that the officer responsible for death an un-armed Black man will be held accountable.
Unchecked police violence is not reserved only for Black men in Montreal. Majiza Phillip, a Montreal-based Black woman, chef, and dance instructor, was out celebrating her 26th birthday in 2014; when in a non-violent interaction following the ticketing of her friend, an SPVM officer broke her arm. The officers subsequently brought her to the station in handcuffs and interrogated her despite her injury. Instead of receiving redress she charged with assaulting two officers, obstructing justice, and resisting arrest.
Anti-Blackness across Canada
The systemic devaluation of Black life is a cross-Canada reality . In Ontario, criminologist Scot Wortely has found that Black persons are ten times more likely than white persons to be shot by the police, and make up a vastly disproportionate level of deaths at the hands of police. The Black Lives Matter Toronto Coalition is entering their second week of an occupation of the Toronto Police Headquarters, and 100 Black faculty members have signed onto their calls for an end to anti-Black racism and anti-Black police violence in Toronto. Included in their demands is that the mayor and the city council address the police slaying of Andrew Loku, a Black father of five who was shot and killed by the Toronto Police Department, after the announcement that the officer will not face a trial by jury.
Until the highly racialized, militaristic ‘war on drugs’ is over, and an acute and systemic anti-Black racism is dismantled, the harms inflicted on Black communities across Canada will only continue. The death of Jean-Pierre Bony must not go un-noticed if we wish to fight for a society in which all Black lives have value, and Black communities are no longer threatened by profiling, violence, incarceration, and the senseless death at the hands of police.
by Robyn Maynard
1. Report on the Commission on Systemic Racism in the Criminal Justice System in Ontario, 1995.
2.Owusu-Bempah, A., & Wortley, S. (2014). Race, crime, and criminal justice in Canada.The oxford handbook of ethnicity, crime and immigration, 281-320.
3. McAll, Christopher, and Leonel Bernard. “Jeunes Noirs Et Systeme De Justice.” Revue du Cremis. Hiver 3.1 (2010)
4. Charest 2009, Mécontentement populaire et pratiques d’interpellations du SPVM depuis 2005: Doit-on garder le cap après la tempête? Mathieu Charest.http://www.spvm.qc.ca/upload/documentations/Mecontentement_populaire_et_pratiques_dinterpellations.pdf
5. For more information on all these deaths and more, visit http://www.flics-assassins.net
5. Statistics Canada 2012