Too Young to Die: Third in a five-part series on youth violence
They didn’t come out for Meriem Boundaoui, 15, shot to death in February 2021, in St-Léonard. They didn’t come out for Jannai Dopwell-Bailey, 16, stabbed and killed outside his Côte-des-Neiges high school in October. But politicians came out for Thomas Trudel.
The 16-year-old was shot dead on the evening of Sunday, Nov. 16, while walking home from the park. Thomas was just minutes from his home in St-Michel. He had only a brief conversation with his assailant, who approached him and asked where he was from, then fired.
He became Montreal’s 31st homicide victim and the third minor killed in the city last year, the second in a month following Dopwell-Bailey’s death on Oct. 18. Along with the shooting of Amir Benayad, 17, in Plateau-Mont-Royal in January, and the stabbing of Lucas Gaudet, 16, outside a Pointe-Claire high school in February, he became one more example of collateral damage in the deadly wave of youth violence sweeping through Montreal over the past two years.
In the days following Thomas’s killing, the wood fence lining the sidewalk where it happened became a memorial site as friends, family and concerned citizens came to pay their respects. It was also a platform for public rhetoric as politicians and police made public appearances.
On the Tuesday, Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante arrived bearing flowers, accompanied by police chief Sylvain Caron.
“(We’re here) to show our support, to tell the family, the Trudels, that our heart is with them, that their loss is unbearable and that we’re going to do everything to find who did that,” Plante told the media. (In the months since the shooting, no arrests have been made in the case.)
She commended Caron on his force’s success in taking 575 guns off the streets. And she expressed frustration at the continued influx of firearms into Canada.
“If each time we take away one and there are 10 more that come into the country, that’s a problem,” Plante said.
The mayor compared rising gun violence in Montreal to similar situations in Toronto and Vancouver, and called on Canada to impose stricter gun laws.
“We’ve really pushed for the government to get more involved and to take the responsibility to ban handguns,” she said, “to increase the penalties for possession of handguns.”
Premier François Legault reacted to Thomas’s death the following day, saying: “I don’t recognize Montreal.” A few days later, he too visited the spot where Thomas was killed, laying flowers by the fence and promising a provincial crackdown on street gangs.
“We’re at the point where this has to stop,” he said. “It’s terrible to see a little guy of 16 get shot.”
Legault also called for a national handgun ban, adding, “we have work to do, everyone has work to do. … We have to add police to work on the issue.”
Legault and Plante’s appearances didn’t sit well with everyone. At Jannai’s funeral, the weekend after Thomas’s death, family members felt there was a double standard at play. Though politicians were quick to mourn the death of Thomas, who was white, they were all but absent at events for Jannai, who was Black.
At a press conference with Plante, the Monday after the funeral, Legault said he never meant to minimize anyone’s grief.
“When any adolescent is killed, it’s unacceptable, it’s incomprehensible,” he said.
Plante explained that while she had not attended Jannai’s funeral, members of her party had been present, including Côte-des-Neiges—Nôtre-Dame-de-Grâce borough mayor Gracia Kasoki Katahwa.
On the morning of March 31, Émile Tremblay stepped up to the microphone at the Montreal forum on armed violence organized by police and the city.
“My friend Thomas Trudel is dead,” Tremblay said. “He was shot to death on November 14. I want to have an impact today, so this situation doesn’t reoccur. Owning a weapon shouldn’t be normal. They’re too easy to obtain. You can print a gun at home (on a 3D printer) or order one online, piece by piece.”
In the wake of Thomas’s death, Tremblay, 16, and three friends formed Ensemble pour Thomas, to push for stricter gun control laws. They follow in the footsteps of activist groups such as PolySeSouvient, comprised of students and graduates of Université de Montréal’s École Polytechnique who have petitioned for stronger gun legislation since the murder of 14 women at the school in 1989.
Tremblay also called for more funding for organizations that work closely with youths.
“We need to be busy,” he said, “to have extracurricular activities or opportunities for employment, options for things other than street gangs — like joining sports teams or going to youth centres. We also need good orientation counsellors. … Young people need help right now.”
In an earlier discussion with other youths at the forum, Tremblay recalled, “someone said, ‘Violence has become normal, part of daily life.’
“It’s not normal that it’s normal,” he countered. “We need to feel safe.”
His message resonated, but the forum received criticism from the outset. Media were excluded from covering the bulk of the proceedings. The official opposition at city hall denounced it as a “public relations exercise” that left them out. And racialized and English-language community organizations, including the Centre for Research-Action on Race Relations, complained they were not invited.
One community group director who attended the forum emerged confused about its purpose.
“It seemed very clear to me that it was all about appearances,” said the director, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals.
There was an ad hoc feeling to the program, which included a few hours of lively discussions with representatives from other community organizations but little in the way of structure or long-term plans.
“I understand that in the current context it feels important to do something urgently,” the director said, “but these things take time. It’s not a three-day forum over a few weeks that’s going to come up with real solutions.”
Plante and Legault instrumentalized Thomas’s death to suit their own narratives, according to Danielle Pilette, associate professor in UQAM’s department of strategy, social and environmental responsibility.
The vast majority of Legault’s support comes from outside Montreal, she said.
“Mr. Legault has a very mitigated interest in Montreal and its problems.”
Making an appearance at Thomas’s memorial site “serves him well,” PiIette explained. “It serves to show the rest of Quebec that Montreal is a problem city.”
By coming out, “Legault is taking part in the solution, saying he won’t leave things up to the federal government to act alone, nor to the municipal government,” she added. “He is assuming his position as chief of state, contending with the federal government and with the autonomist vision of the city of Montreal.”
Plante’s administration is often at odds with Quebec, said Pilette, who cited the recently resolved standoff between Plante and Legault regarding the REM de l’Est rail line as an example.
The mayor has had difficulty securing support in Montreal North and Rivière-des-Prairies, the boroughs northeast of Villeray–St-Michel–Parc-Extension, where Thomas was killed. Both areas have struggled with problems of armed violence, though incidents have spread to other parts of the city in recent years. An early theory put forward by police in Thomas’s killing was that his killer may have been a gang member from Montreal North who came to St-Michel to shoot a random stranger as a rite of passage.
Plante was present at Thomas’s memorial “to position herself regarding Montreal North, which has problems,” Pilette said, “and to assure her credibility in the community milieu. She always puts emphasis on solutions, especially in the northeast of Montreal, where she has less support.”
Ted Rutland, an associate professor at Concordia University who specializes in public security, believes Plante may have lost support in racialized communities — including Montreal North — when she made the “strategic error” of promising to increase police during the 2021 election campaign; but she’s not alone.
“At the municipal, provincial and federal level, we’ve just thrown money at police,” said Rutland, author of the book Displacing Blackness: Planning, Power, and Race in Twentieth Century Halifax.
“Every time there’s an idea (to reduce armed violence, where politicians are) saying something needs to be done, it’s just more money for police.”
If Plante or Legault really wanted to solve armed violence, Rutland argued, they would invest in community violence prevention.
In August 2021, Plante promised an extra $5.5 million for the Montreal police force to help fight the growing problem of gun violence by adding 42 more officers, including 28 for the ECLIPSE anti-gang squad and 14 to help in criminal investigations.
In December, Montreal increased the police department’s annual budget by $45 million, for a total of $724 million — the largest monetary increase for a Canadian municipal police force last year. Rutland would rather see that extra money go toward fulfilling the request of Coalition Pozé, a collective of community groups in Montreal’s northeast that came together last year to demand $90 million for community organizations in neighbourhoods affected by gun violence. That’s the same amount Quebec announced in September it was putting toward its new Opération Centaure squad to hire over 100 police officers and experts to fight gun crime.
“They’re talking about putting $90 million into one police squad,” said Coalition Pozé co-founder Pierreson Vaval. “But if you put as much resources and energy into youth — through violence prevention in schools, through investing in their social life, in family services, in services for young, marginalized people, by telling them they can lead a dignified life — things will change.”
Repression has long been the most significant investment made in minority groups, according to Vaval.
“We invest to satisfy the fears of the majority, but we don’t invest to help minorities,” he said.
“Put $90 million into preventive actions for youths and young adults in the Montreal area; the difference would be spectacular. Why aren’t we able to do it?”
Vaval has spent the past 25 years working with at-risk youths through Équipe RDP, the youth organization he co-founded and directs in Rivière-des-Prairies. He has seen young men who were once friends grow up to be enemies and commit acts of violence against one another. And he has seen troubled youths turn their life around and find their way out of the criminal lifestyle. The difference, he says, lies in the support available to them.
“You have to put doubts in the minds of these youths,” Vaval said. “You have to convince them that, despite their failures, and despite the fact that they have chosen a kind of social suicide — to separate themselves from society and become dangerous to society — you have to make them believe they can be rehabilitated.
“You have to show them — by proposing concrete alternatives, by offering resources that show them they have value — that we’re investing in them even though they have lost confidence in themselves. The only investment society is making for them is in the justice system, in prisons and police.”
Community organizations like his are limited by the amount of financial support they receive, Vaval explained. Real change has to come from the top, from the politicians who control the purse strings.
“Our leaders have to talk about this. Beyond speeches, they have to show they believe in the rehabilitation of young people.”
Earlier in December, Quebec Public Security Minister Geneviève Guilbault announced the government would spend $52 million on crime prevention over the next five years, including $28 million earmarked for Greater Montreal, with some of that money providing more secure funding to community organizations working with at-risk youth.
Vaval welcomed the news, but said it was not enough.
“We hope it’s just the start.”
Homicides aside, there have been several worrying incidents involving gunfire in Montreal in recent weeks. On the evening of April 13, shots were fired at an intersection in Rivière-des-Prairies, while a library window was blown out and a car riddled with bullets in Anjou. Then at the end of May, there were three incidents of gunfire in Rivière-des-Prairies in one week: shots hit the window of a daycare on May 24; three days later, a nearby residential building and two parked cars were struck by bullets from a passing vehicle; and on the evening of May 30, gunshots punctured two cars and the windows of two homes.
Earlier that Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government announced new firearm control legislation, including a national freeze on importing, buying or selling handguns. While coming short of the full handgun ban called for by Plante and Legault, the news was generally hailed as good.
“These are substantial, effective, popular and historical measures that will take Canada in the right direction, consistent with our values and our common desire to never go down the path of our neighbours to the South,” said Nathalie Provost, an École Polytechnique graduate who survived the mass shooting in 1989 despite being shot four times.
Following the announcement, Plante tweeted her support for the legislation.
“I welcome the strong signal sent today by the government of Canada, which proposes national tools to fight against armed and domestic violence. This is a gain for safety in Montreal and in all cities across the country.”
Although the handgun freeze will stop sales and the legal importation of handguns, it won’t have much effect on legally owned guns already in circulation, let alone illegal firearms. A recent Statistics Canada study on trends in firearm-related violent crime revealed a lack of information about the source of firearms used in crimes, such as whether a gun used was stolen, illegally purchased or smuggled into the country.
Handguns were the most serious weapon used in 59 per cent of firearm-related violent crimes between 2015 and 2020, according to the study. Handguns were used in 63 per cent of firearm-related violent crimes in urban areas in 2020. The proportion of homicides involving a firearm rose from 26 per cent in 2013 to 37 per cent in 2020.
In Montreal, firearms were used in just over half the 37 homicides that took place in 2021.
The focus on firearms by politicians and police doesn’t get at the root causes of gun violence, according to Concordia’s Rutland.
“The availability of guns doesn’t necessarily change whether people are going to use them,” he said. “We need to ask not why guns are accessible, but why someone would want to procure and use one; then you’re getting into an important reflection on what leads people to violence.”
Rutland connects the recent rise of police concern about armed violence to calls to defund the police following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police on May 25, 2020. In the weeks following the incident, Montreal joined other Canadian and American cities in staging Black Lives Matter protests.
“Police and media started talking about gun violence a lot more in the fall of 2020,” Rutland said. “That was before any increase in gun violence. … So immediately, I’m interested in why media and police started turning their attention to this before it was a problem.”
Rutland sees a pattern of police responding to broad-based social movements like Black Lives Matter by stoking fears of racialized violence.
“In the summer of 2020, everyone was ready to take money away from police,” he said. “Now the only discussion is (how much) to increase police budgets.”
In October 2020, Rutland examined arrest data for the Montreal police’s new anti-gun squad, Quiétude, and discovered that 74 per cent of the 31 people arrested between December 2019 and April 2020 were Black. Blacks were 42 times more likely to be arrested by the squad than whites, he found.
“The police’s way of combatting gun violence is to target Black gangs in connection to guns,” Rutland told the Montreal Gazette. “But if you look at the shootings happening in the city over the last few years, that’s not going to do very much. It could also make things worse in those communities.”
Police repression can intensify conflicts between gangs, and doesn’t necessarily reduce armed violence, according to Rutland.
“It’s never been clear to me how more police do anything other than send more people to prison who are already struggling,” he said. “It doesn’t act like the deterrent people think it is. When we want a police crackdown, we want police to hurt the bad guys; but the world is more complicated than that. It’s not good guys and bad guys.”
Rutland believes a deeper reckoning is necessary to address the current wave of youth violence and deaths. He hopes society’s growing concern over the issue can lead to lasting change.
In October, citing the need to combat increasing gun violence, police announced the installation of nine closed-circuit surveillance cameras on streets and in parks around Montreal, bringing the total in the city to 33. The cameras were set up in the boroughs of Lachine, Sud-Ouest, Rivière-des-Prairies, Montreal North and St-Léonard.
“They’re almost all pointed at poor and racialized communities,” Rutland observed. “If you look at a map of where those communities are, it’s a good map of where we need to invest in people’s lives, in community programs, education and housing.”
NEXT: Part Four: Crime, punishment and the hope for rehabilitation
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