Street fires no longer burn in Montreal North, but the police shooting that killed 18-year-old Fredy Villanueva remains an open wound for community residents in the district. For Montréal-Nord Républik, a recently formed community group in the area, a new kind of fire has been ignited. Made up of a number of articulate youths who are angry about what’s happening in their community, the Haitians, Latinos, Arabs and Quebecers that make up the group’s core are working together to draw attention to social and economic marginalization experienced by their peers in Montreal North.
The group’s first organizing effort, a protest that started outside the borough council meeting in Montreal North last week, was anything but typical. Along with other residents and protesters, they gathered to call for an independent investigation into the police shooting, an end to racial profiling and the resignation of the current borough mayor.
But with a strong police presence manning the hall doors, demonstrators had to make their way into the council meeting via a side door. Anxious to have their turn to speak, they pointed out that nothing had been done to address the social and economic conditions in Montreal North that led to the violence, and that the council members before them (none of whom are from immigrant communities) were out of touch with the realities and needs of the borough.
"Politicians and the police are now trying to blame everyone but themselves, by blaming gangs, immigrant communities, but without taking any blame for the situation that we are facing in the area," explained Will Prosper of Montréal-Nord Républik. "For years now, street workers and youth from the neighbourhood have been complaining about racial profiling and police harassment, warning that the situation could erupt at any time."
Montréal-Nord Républik aren’t alone in their frustration. According to many community organizers in the area, tensions between the police and youth in the area are directly tied to economic marginalization. Recent census records indicate that working women in Montreal North, an area with large immigrant communities from Haiti, Latin America and North Africa, earn on average $17,000 a year, by far the lowest income within any group in the city.
Additionally, the area is often associated with street gangs in the media, says Prosper. While gangs do exist, community street workers are on the frontlines and have explained that youth are attracted to gangs for apparent financial opportunity, which is unavailable elsewhere. They can also serve as a basis for youth identity in societies where official institutions are hostile.
"Multiple millions have been dropped into police gang prevention programs," continues Will Prosper, but to date, the major funding directed towards gang prevention has been funnelled into police-driven "gang prevention" measures, not social programs that tackle the economic and social conditions that lead to gangs.
"For the police, gang prevention efforts are usually based on racial profiling – police that harasses community. Youth are consistently ticketed for riding their bikes in the wrong place or randomly questioned because they wear certain clothing styles. This is police policy based on racism straight-up."
According to Prosper, marginalization is acutely felt for immigrant communities in Montreal North.
"Minorities are always presented negatively in the news, through constant association to street gangs or as the ‘other’ during the debate surrounding ‘reasonable accommodation,’" continues Will Prosper. "For blacks, Muslims and minorities in general, we are often painted as criminals in the media, and through this process the only image that the police have of minorities is a negative one."
For more info on Montréal-Nord Républik, visit www.montrealnordrepublik.blogspot.com.