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Vigil for victims of police violence takes new tack with call to defund police

A Montreal police riot squad officer carries a non-lethal launcher to fire tear gas, rubber bullets or gel packets as he stands guard outside the SPVM headquarters during a defund the police demonstration in Montreal on Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020.
A Montreal police riot squad officer carries a non-lethal launcher to fire tear gas, rubber bullets or gel packets as he stands guard outside the SPVM headquarters during a defund the police demonstration in Montreal on Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020.

An annual vigil to commemorate the lives lost to police violence took on a new element Saturday when about 400 protesters linked the event to the growing global movement to reduce police funding and increase social services.

“We want to bring attention to police killing across the country, particularly the deaths of black and indigenous people,” said Jessica Quijano, a  member of the Coalition to Defund the Police. “One of our demands is to disarm police immediately.”

This is the 11th year a vigil for victims of police violence has been held. The coalition noted Montreal police officers have killed several individuals, including Bony Jean-Pierre (2016), Koray Celik (2017), Pierre Coriolan (2017) and Nicholas Gibbs (2018). While the province established the  Bureau des enquêtes indépendants (BEI) in 2016 to investigate police killings and other serious acts of violence, a recent report by a coalition of Montreal-based organizations found, in the institution’s four years of existence, claimed not a single charge had been brought against an investigated officer.

“It’s important the families of those victims see solidarity,” Quijano said.”

Calls to defund the police gained momentum this year with the Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S., which was mobilized by the death of George Floyd.

Coalition member Sandra Wesley said it was important for Canadians to realize this is not a U.S. problem.

“I think in Canada there’s more awareness because of the global uprising, which started with what’s happening with our neighbours to the south,” Wesley said. “People here are being sensitized to what’s happening in the United States and people are opening their eyes to see it’s also bad here in Canada, in Montreal, and we have to act on that. We can’t hide behind Canada’s image as a non-racist nation.”

Wesley put the ides of defunding the police into context.

“We’re asking for a 50-per-cent reduction in the SPVM  budget of $662 million,” she said. “We’re asking for a $300-million cut to remove police officers from our lives.”

Wesley said there are many areas where the marginalized groups are faced wth unwanted contacts with the police, which don’t provide beneficial services to the community.

Wesley serves as executive director of Stella l’amie de Maimie, which advocates for sex workers. She called for the decriminalizing of sex work and drug use. The coalition has also called for more resources to deal with mental-health issues, which are now handled by the police.

“Most people are arrested for crimes that are linked to poverty, and we have to address that and heal our communities from hundreds of years of colonialism and racism,” Wesley said.

“We have to stop paying cops, stop buying guns and, instead, we have to start providing services that stop cycles of violence,” he added. “It’s been particularly difficult with the pandemic because people in public spaces, the homeless, people who partake in street economies, youths who don’t have places to congregate. The city is empty and the only visible people are marginalized, which gives a target for police and there are less witnesses to what happens.”

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