Editorial: Montreal wrong to spurn calls to defund the police

City budget an insult after a summer spent demanding change

Graphic Carl Bindman

This year we’ve been no stranger to grief and disappointment. We’ve mourned the loss of far too many Black and Indigenous people at the hands of the police. A mix of resilience, solidarity, rage, and hope has carried us through 2020. We have spoken up and the city of Montreal has responded loud and clear.

Exactly two weeks after Notre-Dame-de-Grâce resident Sheffield Matthews was murdered by the Service de Police de la Ville de Montreal, Mayor Valérie Plante’s administration responded in the form of a $15-million funding increase for police, detailed in the city’s 2021 budget on Nov. 12. The budget for housing was cut by $13 million.

The city’s refusal to defund the SPVM and redirect funds to social services is nothing short of a slap in the face after spending the year marching, advocating, and demanding change.

Black people deserve more. Indigenous people deserve more. Trans people, people with disabilities, people living with mental illness, People of Colour, sex workers, and immigrants deserve more. Lives are being lost, and Plante’s administration is funnelling millions of dollars into the pockets of the institution killing the people we’ve been demanding be protected.

Of the #DefundTheSPVM campaign’s 10 demands, three specifically call for redistribution of funds from the SPVM’s budget. Redirection of just half of this budget would provide social services with $339.5 million to provide care and safety services for Montreal communities.

Community-led programs and unarmed services could use this funding to respond to crises involving mental health, drug use, traffic violations, and other instances where police involvement has proven to lead to the harm and death of marginalized people.

There simply is no denying the systemic racism of the SPVM. Black and Indigenous people are far more likely to face street-checks than white Montrealers and are vastly overrepresented in police killings in relation to the population.

Plante, so far, has been all talk and no action. She has made performative gestures and has failed to bring substantial change; activists have described the city’s response as superficial. A report released in June by the Office de Consultation Publique noted the City had failed to recognize systemic racism and discrimination on its territory. Plante acknowledged it and made vague promises to take action—including promising to review the SPVM’s funding and consider community responses that could replace police interventions—but since then, none of this has been developed at all. 

This moment has also proven the city’s unwillingness to engage with activists. Sandra Wesley, from the Defund the SPVM campaign, told CBC that a meeting they were supposed to have with the executive committee of Plante’s administration last week—the same week as the budget tabling—was cancelled at the last minute. This shows how little the movement, in general, is being taken seriously. 

The announcement of the budget comes on the heels of a similar announcement by the Quebec government that it would provide $65 million in new funding to police departments to combat gun violence. The SPVM is using its share of this provincial funding to expand its anti-gun squad.

According to research by Concordia professor Ted Rutland, 74 per cent of people charged and arrested by this squad were Black—Black people were therefore 42 times more likely to be charged by the squad than white people.  

Defunding the police has been portrayed by some as an impractical and radical idea, however this is challenged by the widespread support for it. A poll in September found that 39 per cent of Montrealers favor defunding the police—significant support for an idea that is new to many people. 

In Calgary, city council recently voted to reallocate $10 million from the police budget to address gaps in crisis and outreach services and emergency responses, as well as gaps in racially and culturally appropriate services.

Even though Calgary is only reallocating five per cent of its police budget, a drop in the bucket, it's a step in the right direction. Why can’t Montreal do the same?

Activists from the Defund the SPVM coalition are urging people to lend their voices to the movement by visiting the website DefundTheSPVM.com for templates and resources to use to contact their local city councillors.

Sadly, only time will tell how many more deaths the SPVM will cause before the city enacts the proactive change we need. It's beyond time to halt using money to criminalize the poor, the homeless, and Black and Indigenous people, and use that money to support and protect them instead.