Erasing Tragedy: Black History and the Death of Fredy Villanueva

A People’s History of Canada Column

  • Graphic Olivier Robidoux

Ten years ago, Fredy Villanueva was shot dead by police in Montreal North.

Ten years later, do people remember what happened? Do we care?

What was at the time a pivotal part of what seemed like an awakening to the rampant racial inequalities of Quebec and, parallely, Canadian society as a whole, seems to be doomed to be forgotten.

This hasn’t just been the case for the death of Villanueva. All throughout Canadian history, racial tragedies, and to an extent the history of racial inequality in Canada as a whole, has been relegated to the footnotes of high school textbooks.

In the minds of Canadians, there has been a certain “we don’t have those problems here” worldview when talking about racial inequality. After all, it’s not like we had the KKK or segregation in Canada, right? If we did, why didn’t I hear about it before, just as I heard of Martin Luther King Jr. and Jim Crow?

This feeling, arguably, translated to a sense that these kinds of racial problems aren’t happening right here, right now.

Villanueva was shot by a police officer in a Montreal North park, in a police intervention gone wrong. Fredy himself had no criminal record, yet he was the one who was killed that night. The officer responsible for his death was later found to have been “aggressive” and had “made a poor decision” in what was ultimately determined by a judge at the coroner’s inquest hearing as having been a ‘‘legal, albeit preventable death.’‘

In fact, one of the reactions to the riot that followed the death of Fredy Villanueva was a surprise at the reaction by people outside the community. Meanwhile, residents of Montreal North were surprised too, surprised that something like that hadn’t happened sooner.

I’m sorry if I have to be the one to tell you this, but discrimination and tragedies are happening, and they have for a long, long time.

The KKK operated in Ontario and Western Canada through the 1920s and early 1930s. Even the Underground Railroad, a Canadian point of pride, had its ugly side. Many escaping the South’s slavery encountered racism and discrimination, including what jobs they could have and even the segregation of schools and communities in Ontario and Nova Scotia.

Saint John, New Brunswick even instored segregation into their city charter in 1785, following the American Revolution and the influx of Loyalists, including 3000 African-Americans in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. The charter prevented them from being considered fully-fledged citizens of the city, practicing a trade or even living in the city limits unless they were servants or menial labourers.

Canada (by way of the British Empire) didn’t outlaw slavery until 1834, only 30 years before the Emancipation Proclamation.

This isn’t even talking about the discrimination that Asian people, Indigenous people, and other minority groups have faced in Canadian history.

While Canadian slavery and segregation haven’t exactly been preoccupations in recent times, this hasn’t brought an end to discrimination. Rather, it takes on a new face in today’s society, that of racial profiling, especially by police.

Many studies and surveys of POC and police have shown that the majority feel they are being or have been racially profiled by police. In 1995, Black Toronto high school students were surveyed, and 52 per cent said they felt they and others were being treated worse than non-Black students. A study from the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty also found that two thirds of the people questioned had been subject to police assault or threats in their lifetime, as well as 74 per cent of them reporting having been the subject of harassment by police.

More still, a 2005 internal investigation from Kingston, Ontario’s police department found that Black people were almost four times more likely to have been pulled over by the police than white people, and that they were disproportionately represented in police stops. The 2005 report was the first of its kind in Canada.

Still today, we are barely scratching the surface of investigations into racial profiling. As of 2017, measures to curb racial profiling by Montreal police, based on findings from a report overlooking 2012 and 2014, had never been put into place.

All these problems were around when Fredy Villanueva was killed.

The shooting, as well as the handling of the case both by the police and the justice system (neither of the officers involved were charged) lead to protests, including a massive riot a day after the shooting, with cars torched and buildings vandalized throughout the night as tensions, fear and frustration finally came to an explosive boiling point.

Villanueva’s death sparked what has now been called the awakening of Quebec to its racial problems.

The Aug. 10 riot was the first of its kind in Montreal, both in scope and location–riots in residential areas had been unheard of before that night. Flaws found in the way both the Montreal police and the Sûreté du Québec handled their reports resulted in the overhaul of how these cases are investigated both internally and externally.

More than five years after the Kingston police, Quebec police departments are only now reluctantly beginning to face the facts of their profiling, due to many external investigations into it’s systemic racial profiling.

What they found, according to the reports, wasn’t profiling, but straight up racism, especially in communities like Montreal North.

Still ten years after the fact it seems like we can’t face the fact that events like the shooting of Fredy Villanueva happen. A memorial, named Place de l’Espoir, is being put up near where Villanueva was killed. It will bear no mention and have no image of Villanueva or what happened. A mural depicting Villanueva was proposed, but later axed after complaints from the Police Brotherhood.

The decision not to have any mention of what happened is, quite simply, baffling. Not only is the memorial intended specifically to be a tribute to Villanueva, the people behind the project, including borough mayor Christine Black, have expressly said that the monument was made for this specific reason. Who are we trying to fool by hiding behind vague names for tributes and the refusal to acknowledge the name of the very person that is being honored? Is it ourselves, or those that will follow that will have no clue what happened after it has faded from people’s memory? It seems as though they didn’t want to do the memorial.

Why bother with a half-baked one in the first place?

Are we doomed to repeat this cycle of burying tragedies that took place just as we buried slavery, segregation, or discrimination ever happening in Canada?

It’s not all doom and gloom, of course not. Activists and community members are still keeping the name of Villanueva alive, with flowers, graffiti, and cards at the anniversary of his death, while also fighting against the continued stigma and oppression against minority youth in Montreal North after the tragedy.

The fact that the city is acknowledging who the memorial is about can be seen as a very, very minor positive thing to have come out of the aftermath of Villanueva’s death, considering their reluctance to actually honor him in any meaningful way.

The Internet is a haven of information not only about Villanueva’s death, but also about Canada’s racial and discriminatory history. If only what could be found by digging on the internet could be what we are talking about in classrooms and as part of curriculums not only at the high school level, but at the university level too.

Either way, ten years later, it’s safe to say that change still needs to be made to truly rectify what has happened, and what is still happening today in terms of racial inequality and how we handle the tragedies that come with it. Not only that, the history of racism in Canada, segregation and slavery included, need to occuy a larger part of the history being taught to students. How can discussions and knowledge of the events take place if we have to go out of our way to find out about the tragedies that have happened to all these people?

If anything, they deserve better than to be just a forgotten footnote of Canadian history.

The original publication of this article stated that Villanueva’s brother was arrested for illegal gambling, though he never formally arrested. This article also originally stated that the court had said that the police officer who shot Villanueva had caused a ‘‘legal albeit preventable death’‘, when in reality it was a judge at the coroner’s inquest hearing who said this. The Link has since corrected these errors, and has added more context to article, by mentioning in addition that external investigations have also looked into racial profiling by the Montreal police.

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