The memorial to 18-year-old Fredy Villanueva was mostly made up of birthday balloons, flowers, and candles. It featured a portrait of Villanueva himself, in an immaculate white suit that matched the snow that had blanketed the makeshift shrine.
The shrine was torched earlier this month. Now it's just a tree covered in cold cinders.
Eight years after Villanueva was shot to death by police officers, an act of violence that sparked social unrest in Montreal-North, another man's death incited residents to take to the streets again to denounce police brutality.
It was deja vu. A bank's broken windows, uninsured ash heaps, a vandalized police station.
That was the aftermath of the protests that cropped up earlier this month in the largely-diverse, lower-income community.
Jean-Pierre "Bonano" Bony was shot in the head by a Montreal police officer with a — supposedly non-lethal — rubber bullet on March 31, after trying to run from a drug bust.
Bony spent five days unconscious, caught between life and death. Five days his family and friends prayed for him at his hospital bedside. He was 46 years old when he died, on April 4, leaving a pair of twin teenage daughters behind as well as an enraged community.
"Bony's no drug dealer," says Jean Beaujean, a Montreal-North former gang member who knew him since they were teens. "It's just a way to discredit him. When they shot and handcuffed him, did they find any drugs on him?"
Days later, a previously organized memorial march for Villanueva merged with the protest over Bony's death and drew new attention to the borough.
On the ground, though, much remains the same.
Recommendations made after Villanueva's 2008 shooting death, aimed at fighting racial profiling and discrimination in the city's policing, have not been fully adopted. Citizens feel that the city is more interested in fighting the neighborhood's street gangs than creating jobs and opportunity for its residents. An ongoing mayoral election is failing to inspire much confidence in residents.
For residents, it's tough to escape the feeling that, after eight years, little has changed for Montreal-North.
Video by Shaun Michaud
Montreal-North is one of the poorest boroughs in the city, let alone the country. Crime, systemic racism, poverty, and a black stain for a reputation have plagued the multicultural hotspot for generations. Frustrated residents who call the borough home are seeking solutions to their endemic difficulties.
"It's a beautiful, culturally diverse, borough," says Nargess Mustapha, a 30-year-old curly-haired social activist. "Depending on which sector you live in, you always feel like a family."
She started working for protest group Montréal-Nord Républik in 2008. The collective sought justice after Fredy Villanueva's death. He had been playing a game of dice in the parking lot of a park, when two police officers came around to ticket the group for breaking municipal rules.
Dany, Fredy's older brother, felt they were harassing them so he started walking away. A physical struggle ensued and officer Jean-Loup Lapointe fired at the men, killing Fredy and injuring two others.
Montréal-Nord Républik helped organize the vigil and the march in the young man's honor alongside the group Justice for Victims of Police Killings.
In a strange coincidence, Dany was among 15 people arrested in last month's bust, which killed Bony.
According to a report from La Presse, Dany had sold marijuana to an undercover police officer in the apartment where Bony was killed, and he was collared later that day in a suburb of Montreal. The report states that authorities believe the apartment acted as an illegal gambling den and a place to sell drugs.
The arrest sparked new tensions with the city's police service, long accused of employing racial profiling. The city's previous police chief, Marc Parent, identified the problem as a priority and drew up a litany of strategies and recommendations to address the matter. Criticism, however, remains that the police target racialized communities, especially Montreal-North.
Dany was released after his recent arrest but is due back in court on charges of conspiracy and selling narcotics. His arrest, and Bony's death, occurred just days before a memorial for Fredy, set on what would have been his 26th birthday.
"Fredy could have been my brother, my friend, my neighbor," Mustapha explains. "Eight years later, we are reliving the same thing."She says the protest aimed to raise awareness about the systemic racism people of color face throughout their lives.
"It was beautiful," says Émilie Nicolas of the march. The 30-year-old is a PhD student in anthropology at the University of Toronto and spokesperson for Québec Inclusif, which took part in the protest.
"It was a lot of positive energy, a sense of being part of the neighborhood that you rarely see in downtown protests. People are cheering from the balconies and coming out directly from their doors," says Nicolas.
A separate group later turned to destruction to make their point. And some people believe Montreal police officers are being allowed to act with impunity, according to Mustapha, who cited the fact that Jean-Loup Lapointe was never indicted.
Cars were lit on fire, windows were broken. Police are still searching for suspects in relation to that destruction.
In the aftermath, city hall appeared reticent to spark the powder keg of tensions. Police were ordered by the city to stand down and, generally, to avoid making arrests or intervening. In a letter sent from the police union to mayor Denis Coderre, officers blasted that decision. In it, police argued that their job is to keep order.
"We are not at all opposed to a social and community-minded approach, and we believe, in effect, that the population of Montreal-North merits investment in its social fabric, and in jobs," the letter reads. "Nevertheless, we do not believe that it is a service to citizens to cross our arms, faced with criminality, under the pretext to not hurt some sensibilities."
Police march in Montreal North Wednesday night. (Photo by VICE du Jour)
Others point to what they see as problematic accountability measures in policing: the Sûreté du Québec, the provincial police force, is investigating the Montreal police force's actions in Bony's death, while the Montreal police force investigates allegations that the provincial force sexually abused First Nations women in the town of Val D'Or, some 300 miles north of Montreal.
"The Sûreté du Québec is still investigating [Bony's] case even as they're being investigated for all the sexual assault allegations," says Robyn Maynard, 29, who is working on a book about state violence against Black persons in Canada. "It's madness."
She also bemoans the media coverage of the march that descended into violence.
"It was hour-on-hour coverage of the fact that a few cars had been destroyed and some broken windows," she says comparing it to the reporting on Bony, who had spent the weekend in a hospital. "He still wasn't named. So, I feel like that really shows us the value of Black life in Canada, in Montreal right now."
In Rivière-des-Prairies, the borough to the west of Montreal-North, Beaujean and my eldest brother Richard help Hervé Léon, a social worker, take down the car shelter in his driveway — a white tent that sits in many Montreal driveways, and is the universal symbol for Quebec drivers' winter wisdom. Gray strands streak through their hair now but when these three get together it's just like they were teens again.
We grew up on Rue Pierre, one street down from where Bony was shot. He and my eldest brother came of age together.
The guys met when they were 15 years old. Bony was from Parc-Extension and joined a local gang, Publik Enemy. His mother lived in Montreal-North so he was often around. Though they belonged to different crews, the boys grew close.
"We became like brothers. When cops chased us, hit us with nightsticks for getting into fights with white kids," said Léon. "All this gave us a sense of belonging. That's why today none of us can accept Bony's death. He was innocent."
His friends describe him as an eternal teenager, who shied away from responsibility but welcomed bad influences. He was an occasional couchsurfer who still lived with his mother and collected welfare checks, living day to day.
"Jean-Pierre Bony is proof that nothing has changed."
"One time I was at a ball with Bony," says Beaujean. "He got up and threw $1000 into the air. Everybody scrambled for a 20."
The guys chuckle then sigh.
"The next day, he showed up asking people to lend him some cash."
But Bony's friends think he only went to that apartment on Arthur Chevrier Street last month to play poker.
Despite the moniker, derived from the New York-based Bonanno crime family, those who knew him say he was a far cry from a Montreal-North kingpin.
A friend of Bony's swears that had he been late by five minutes, he would not have been in that residence a mere five minutes when the tactical unit burst in.
Bony made an ill-advised attempt to escape through the window of the second-floor apartment after police broke down the door. A police officer stopped him dead in his tracks with a rubber bullet.
According to Sergeant Laurent Gingras, Montreal police searched the apartment and found $2280, 237 grams of marijuana, eight cellphones, six scales, two counterfeit credit cards, two crack rocks, and paraphernalia to cook large quantities of crack cocaine.
Jean-Pierre Bony. Photo via Facebook.
Beaujean says authorities will label you a drug dealer even if you only hang out with pushers. He says whether or not you're aware your acquaintances sell doesn't matter to police.
"Quebecers have a saying," he says laughing. "Tell me who you run with, I'll tell you what kind of person you are."
Rough-and-tumble Beaujean is the younger brother of Beauvoir Jean, founder of Master B, a local street gang that emerged in the early 80s. Street gangs in Montreal-North were mostly bands of Haitian youth, tired of enduring taunts and beatings at the hands of their racist peers. The teenage hoods would scrawl the gang's name across the backboards of the basketball court at Henri-Bourassa Park. My brother played on the basketball team.
"They weren't gangs per say. We would escort the school's basketball team to cheer them on," Beaujean says. "And sometimes, well..."
"White people didn't like that," my brother chimes in.
Beaujean says that soon, gangs mushroomed across the school district, all seeking shelter from skinheads — and sometimes each other.
In the 1990s, the Hell's Angels had hired an alliance of street gangs — nicknamed les Bleus — to run drugs throughout Montreal. Master B worked to keep them out of Montreal-North as they tried to push into the neighborhood to sell dope. It was like Southern California. Crips versus Bloods. Blacks against Blacks.
Violence escalated and earned the borough its distinct reputation.
Like Léon, Beaujean left that life behind years ago.
"I cut hair, do a little bit of everything," he says. Beaujean holds a heavy equipment operator certificate, but can't find work in the industry. "You'll never see a Black heavy equipment operator in Quebec. We take courses and we still have a hard time getting a job out here."
But the gang violence is what usually draws attention on the neighbourhood. Bigger organized crime outfits made it into the borough eventually. Over the last two decades, biker gangs and the Italian mafia used local gangs to organize drug running throughout the city. High-profile assassinations in recent years have felled high-profile gang leaders. Police busts have jailed others.
Mustapha argues that fighting gang violence can't be the only focus. She says the government should be investing in employment within the borough.
"We can't just talk about police violence," Mustapha says. "We know there is social exclusion. We know there is poverty, that the school dropout rate is high. This in turn creates crime and leads to an overrepresentation of police in the borough."
Six police cruisers roll up and down Rolland Blvd. It's windy and it has rained all day. It's been a long winter and still spring refuses to let the sunshine in. Mustapha takes shelter at the Tim Horton's next to police station 39 — it was vandalized the night of the protest.
"Jean-Pierre Bony is proof that nothing has changed," the social activist said once inside.
The remains of Fredy Villaneuva's memorial, after it was burned down. (Photo by Shaun Michaud)
In 2008, Montréal-Nord Républik made five recommendations to City Hall: The resignation of then-mayor Marcel Parent; a public inquiry into Villanueva's death; the end of abusive police practises; a permanent memorial for Villanueva; and the recognition that as long as economic insecurity persists, there'll be social unrest.
"We asked for the mayor's resignation because we thought he was completely disconnected with the population and the realities of Montreal-North," Mustapha says.
Then-mayor Marcel Parent stayed on another year after residents set bonfires to protest Villanueva's death in August 2008. He decided to retire at the end of his mandate in November 2009 citing health concerns.
Despite her group's advances, Mustapha says there is still work to be done. Three of the recommendations have yet to be followed.
The simplest, a memorial for Villanueva, has not been fulfilled. Now, even the makeshift shrine is gone — burned down for unclear reasons by unknown persons.
The group says a call for an end to "intimidation, harassment, racial profiling, abusive questioning" hasn't been addressed.
"Just in 2006-2007, almost 40 per cent of Black youth in Montreal-North and in St-Michel had been stopped by the police versus five per cent of white youth," says Maynard.
Maynard believes there is a significant pattern of racial profiling in the city.
Officer Laurent Gingras said over the phone that there is already a mechanism to address possible racial profiling.
"If there are people who think they're victims of behaviours such as you describe, there already exists organizations where they can file complaints. There's the police ethics system," he said. "Police services have always maintained that they don't practice racial profiling, but criminal profiling."
Montréal-Nord Républik's other unmet recommendation is "the principle that as long as there is financial instability there will be social instability," which Mustapha repeats like a mantra.
Mustapha claims the 2008 protests allowed them to get the second recommendation — the inquiry. In charge of the inquiry, coroner André Perreault made a series of recommendations.
One recommendation from that inquiry was made to the city of Montreal and the borough council of Montreal-North. It suggested the "setup of a particular plan of action relating to the fight of poverty and social exclusion of the persons and communities that compose the population of Montreal-North."
Activists want a public inquiry into Bony's death as well.
After sunset, sirens blare on Maurice-Duplessis Blvd. Despite the weather, it reminds me of balmy childhood summer nights fending off mosquitoes.
The unrest falls square in the middle of a municipal by-election, to replace Borough Mayor Gilles Deguire — forced to resign after accusations of sexual assault on a minor surfaced in January. Deguire served 30 years as a police officer in Montreal-North, working with troubled youth.
At an electoral panel at a community centre in the borough, mayoral candidates presented their ideas on how to rejuvenate the borough. Around 75 residents show filling up the room like an improvised Black protestant church.
Jacques Massicotte, running as an independent, makes the crowd laugh and cry with his Trump-esque insensitivity. A thin, bald man with a meticulously trimmed goatee, is asked about how he intends to help heal the community's stubborn wounds eight years after Villanueva's passing.
"What do I have to do with that?" He said to loud scoffs from the attendance. "We commemorate his demise — or birthday or whatever — every year. He's dead. Can we move on? Let's pull together and stop acting like victims. I know a bunch of Haitians on my street. They're not victims."
The crowd booed him into an awkward apology.
Christine Black addresses the forum. (Photo by Shaun Michaud)
Christine Black, running for Equipe Denis Coderre, the main political force in Montreal, led by the mayor of the city, tries to portray a dependable city official. Director for 10 years at L'Escale youth community centre, she says that once elected, she would "knock on doors" to get more financing injected into the borough.
"You know in Montreal North, it's like a family," Black says. "In a family, things don't always go so well, sometimes there are issues we need to fix. It's not just up to the borough to achieve this, the whole community has to get together. The borough, community organisations, the police service, residents, institutions, everybody has to get together."
During the break, one woman tells other constituents that she sounds "rehearsed."
Kerlande Mibel is the hometown candidate running for Project Montreal, the city's left-wing ecologist party. She reflects the pained look on many faces in the crowd.
"We are the poorest borough in Canada. Montreal should invest here," Mibel says. "We should be a priority. How can they let a borough waste away? It's not normal to have a rich parent with a poor child. And you say you love it? Come on."
Montreal-North — the "poor child" — had been an independent city until 2002, when it was merged into Montreal.
When asked how, if elected, she intends to bridge the gap between residents and the city police, Mibel points to the police and Montreal City Hall, saying it's not up to the borough.
She promises to invest in education. She proposes a program to establish an incubator where youth can learn how to code.
After the panel, several young Black men linger and complain about ongoing police harassment.
Twenty-one-year-old Sacha Wilky says police accosted him several times in a series of mistaken identities.
"I was at a fast food joint with two Black girls when cops showed up," he said. "They said kids had caused a ruckus earlier so we would be forced to order our food and eat outside."
Wilky says he felt victimized.
"Right away they identified us with these kids without even seeing us in the crowd," he says.
Stanley Berlus, a 37-year-old entrepreneur who specializes in the home-delivery of fruits and vegetables, says police officers once made him fear for his life.
"I was walking down the street when five police cars circled me," he says. "They pointed their guns at me and screamed 'get on the ground.' They handcuffed me, put me in their backseat, did a search, didn't find anything. Then, they brought me in front of an eyewitness who said 'it's not him.'"
Berlus says the officers congratulated him for keeping his cool and obeying their commands.
Neither men had criminal priors. Their anecdotes sound like Beaujean's musings in Léon's driveway.
"Every Black kid's first criminal offence here in Montreal," he says before pausing. "Obstruction of justice. You know why? We never gave them our real names. We were all afraid of giving away our identity."
Mustapha says Montréal-Nord Républik isn't planning any future protest for the moment. Wednesday, they held a press conference with Montreal Noir — another Black activist group formed by Maynard among others — right outside police station 39.
On top of the list of demands they made in 2008, the joint group asks for the creation of a commission to study the impact of systemic racism. They also request a moratorium on the new Bureau des enquêtes indépendantes assigned to investigate cases where police operations result in the serious injury or death of civilians.
"The Bureau des enquêtes will be composed of former police officers," says Mustapha. "An independent public inquiry should truly be independent of the police force."
As for Bony, they are still in the dark about his death.
"It's often like this in cases of police blunders," she says. "City officials make people wait. We ask questions but don't get any answers. Then, they act stunned when things go off."
Fredy Villanueva's mother, Lilian, clears snow off his photograph. (Photo by VICE du Jour)
Follow Shaun Michaud on Twitter: @shaun_mic