Ten years after the police shooting of Fredy Villanueva, an unarmed 18-year-old in a poor neighbourhood called Montreal North, his death is still marked every year by bouquets of flowers, graffiti and cards left as impromptu memorials.
But even as the city balks at building a lasting monument to him, the young man who got caught up in a senselessly escalated scuffle between his brother and a police officer has already marked his city and province in permanent ways.
Five years before the Black Lives Matter movement and its offshoots came into being, activists and establishment figures alike say the death of Mr. Villanueva sparked an effort in Montreal to awaken the city and province to the plight of marginalized people, particularly among poor racial and ethnic minorities.
A range of controversies, advances and other events can be traced directly to Mr. Villanueva’s death, the ensuing riot one day later and subsequent demands from the activists of Montreal North.
The province passed a law to establish an independent unit to investigate police violence in 2013, pushed in large part by the questionable handling of the Villanueva case. Modest attempts to examine systemic racism and the grudging admission by police that racial profiling is a problem were in part the result of demands of activists from the community. Even a current debate over cultural appropriation that led to the cancellation of two plays by Quebec icon Robert Lepage can be traced to many of the same players who emerged after the death of Mr. Villanueva.
“It’s been a long road, and it takes a lot of time to shift people’s views,” said Will Prosper, a filmmaker and one of the activists who surfaced in the wake of Mr. Villanueva’s death. “From the moment we started the week after Fredy’s death, we knew it would be a marathon. But there are changes.”
And some things haven’t changed. Montreal North is still among the poorest urban postal codes in Canada. In some sectors, one out of every two youths are unemployed, despite Montreal’s booming economy.
The shooting and riot were monumental events in the city, said Christine Black, the Montreal North Borough Mayor who was a community worker there in 2008. “One should keep in mind this was the first time we had a riot in a residential neighbourhood of Montreal. It really was a kind of uprising,” Ms. Black said.
Mr. Villanueva was with a group of youths playing dice in a parking lot in Henri-Bourassa Park on Aug. 9, 2008, when Constable Jean-Loup Lapointe and his partner approached them. The officer identified two of the youth, including Mr. Villanueva’s brother, Dany, as gang members, and wanted to issue them tickets for breaking a municipal bylaw against gambling.
Within a minute of the officer’s attempt to arrest Dany Villaneuva, the two were wrestling on the ground. The officer said he feared for his life as the group of young people advanced toward him. He fired four shots, killing Fredy Villanueva and wounding two others.
A judge who presided over a lengthy coroner’s inquest into the death found “human factors,” including the poor decisions of an aggressive officer and the belligerence of Mr. Villanueva’s brother, Dany, led to a legally justified but preventable shooting. Justice André Perreault found Fredy Villaneuva “just had the bad reflex or lousy judgment to try to end the altercation by getting between the two.”
The judge also cited 15 serious flaws in the Sûreté du Québec’s investigation of the Montreal police shooting, many of which favoured the officer who pulled the trigger.
Despite the significance of the event, city recognition of Mr. Villaneuva’s death is subject to limits.
While the city has renovated the city park where Mr. Villanueva was killed to include a “Place de l’Espoir” – place of hope – to remember the August, 2008, events, Mr. Villanueva himself has been left out of the commemoration.
When Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante said she was open to a memorial, police union president Yves Francoeur angrily responded she should build a monument to the 71 Montreal police officers who have fallen in the line of duty. Ms. Black said ambivalence about a monument extends beyond police ranks.
“The police are only one element. It’s an issue that 10 years later still divides people and it’s our job to bring people together,” Ms. Black said. “We’re still talking about it and there are citizens who don’t even want to hear about it at all.”
The absence of Mr. Villanueva from his own memorial plaza is emblematic of the work that remains, Mr. Prosper said. “Fredy Villanueva has become associated with a negative image of the youth of Montreal North that people have in their imagination. They think of crime, they think of gangs. He had nothing to do with any of that,” he said. “He’s a great representation of the stigma and racism the youth carry in our community.”