Guilty Until Proven Innocent
Despite new police guidelines, sources say officers in Montreal's North End are still routinely stopping Black youth and demanding they identify themselves under the flimsiest of pretexts.
“You’re going to end up in the cage.”
That’s what police told Sacha-Wilky Merazil before arresting him in front of his neighbours Sunday. Merazil, who is Black, was stopped in Rivières-des-Prairies and told he “looked like” the suspect in an assault they were investigating.
In fairness, they had given him a choice. All Sacha-Wilky Merazil had to do was show the police his identification and he’d be home free. If he just buried his pride and went through the motions, Merazil could be sitting down to Sunday dinner with his wife and daughter instead of having his hands shackled in the back of a patrol car.
He’d left his North End apartment on Sunday to pick up some patio furniture for his mom and buy a bucket of chicken on the way back. Merazil was almost home when he came upon a half dozen officers questioning a Black jogger.
“They told me they were looking for a suspect in a domestic violence case,” Merazil told The Rover. “At first they let me go but then, as I was getting ready to drive away, a squad cut me off and they got a lot more aggressive.
“The weird thing was, the other man they stopped looked nothing like me. Yes, we’re both Black but he had a bushy beard, dreadlocks, wore glasses and he was much shorter than me. I have short hair, a bit of stubble and I’m 220 pounds. It wasn’t a mystery why they stopped me.”
This wasn’t Merazil’s first run in with the police. As a Black man who grew up in Montréal-Nord, he knew the drill: have your identification ready, be unfailingly polite, make no sudden moves and, above all, do whatever the officers tell you to. It could feel incredibly degrading, to constantly be asked to prove you’re not a criminal in your own neighbourhood; in front of your girlfriend, your kid, your buddies. But that was just how things had always been.
This time he couldn’t bring himself to go through with it. This time, the need to preserve some semblance of human dignity outweighed his sense of self preservation. So he turned his phone camera on and started filming the encounter. That’s when things escalated.
“You’re going to end up in the cage,” one officer is heard saying, off camera.
“Sir, with all the respect that I owe you … no I won’t, because I know my rights, I’m not detained because I haven’t committed any infractions, officer,” Merazil says.
Within a few seconds, they snatch him from his minivan, slap the phone out of his hands and hustle him into the squad car. Along the way, he says an officer approached him with a can of pepper spray and taunted him with it. The others laughed.
In the video’s final frame, one of the officers looks directly into the camera and stops the recording. What happened next, according to Merazil, constitutes a serious breach of his Charter rights, at minimum, and possibly a violation of privacy law.
“The officer deleted the video from my phone,” said Merazil, a university student and political columnist. “That’s not something you do when you think you’re playing things by the book. But they’re not stupid, they know they had to get into my phone, go into the trash folder and delete it again if they wanted the video to go away.
“So when they told me I had the right to call my lawyer, they said they’d only allow it if I told them my phone’s password. Of course, I refused to. Why would I let them destroy evidence of wrongdoing? These people are supposed to serve this community and here they are threatening to put me in a cage, treating me like a monkey, forcing me into handcuffs in front of my neighbours.
“It was humiliating, it was dehumanizing but I think that was the point.”
The Montreal police beefed up its presence in the North End boroughs of Montréal-Nord, St-Michel and Rivières des Prairies last year following a 44 per cent increase in homicides across the island. In addition to the 36 homicide deaths in 2021, there was also a rise in the number of crimes involving a gun.
In response, the Quebec government forked out $5 million for a new anti gun task force and the city increased its annual police budget to a whopping $679 million — up $45 million from the previous year. It was the largest budget increase of any police department in Canada.
Three sources who work with youth in the community say an increase in patrols in the North End has led to more young people of colour being stopped and questioned by officers without pretext. None would speak on the record for fear of police reprisals.
One researcher says Merazil’s arrest is on par with the department’s record on accountability.
“What (Merazil) experienced fits into a pattern we’ve seen in Montreal forever, which is the police treat a Black person as a criminal using the pretext that he matches some vague description,” said Ted Rutland, a Concordia University professor whose research centres on the Montreal police. “(Merazil) rightly asserted that he doesn’t have to identify himself for no reason.
“This is the same department that just adopted a new policy on street checks that was supposed to do away with racial profiling. The new policy says you can only stop someone based on observable facts, that you can’t racially profile people. But police have always told me, in interviews, that they can just make up a pretext for stopping someone. So how is this new policy going to prevent racial profiling? Well, it isn’t an effective policy if the police can just say ‘you match a description.’”
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The department’s record on racial profiling was laid bare in 2019, when a report looking at three years of police data found huge disparities between the way officers treat whites versus how they interact with people of colour. The study found that Black men are four times more likely to be stopped by police than whites and that Indigenous women stopped at a rate 11 times higher than white women.
And that’s when the officers bothered to document their activities. The study, commissioned by the city of Montreal, also found an “important” number of street checks go unreported. Sylvain Caron, Montreal’s chief of police in 2019, couldn’t bring himself to admit his department had a serious problem.
“We don’t have any racist police officers,” Caron told reporters after the study was released. “We have police officers who are citizens and who, inevitably, have biases like all citizens can have. That’s the part we need to try to understand, and it’s a complex issue.”
Acting on the recommendations of city hall, Caron’s department created the Politique sur les interpéllations policières— a policy meant to curtail abusive police checks. When I contacted the department to ask about the policy’s effectiveness, the police initially refused to answer my questions on the grounds that they only respond to journalists “who work for professional organizations.”
After some pressure from both my colleagues and a source in the mayor’s office, police sent the following statement:
“This intervention occurred in the context of police looking for a suspect. … we will give no other information on this file,” the statement reads. “That being said, if a person feels they were mistreated during an intervention, it’s their right to file a complaint against the officer or officers with the department or an independent organization.
“Moreover, the Politique sur les interpéllations policières … explicitly mentions that there’s zero tolerance policy towards any discriminatory behaviour or profiling.”
If the tension between a police force fighting gang violence and a community trying merely to exist feels familiar, it’s because we’ve seen this play out before. When gang-related murders in Montreal rose from six in 2006 to 12 the following year and 14 in 2008, police created an anti-gang task force that focused on the North End.
The unit, called Groupe Eclipse, became notorious for hassling Black youth. I know this because the first article I ever had published in the Montreal Gazette was an investigation into Eclipse. Created in 2008, the 66-person squad took credit for a reduction in violent crime that started the following year.
But the statistics tell another story.
Far from being a unit that targeted the worst of the worst, the vast majority of Eclipse’s arrests — in its first two years of existence — were for nonviolent crimes. During that period, 400 of the squad’s 1,419 arrests were for probation violation. That could be something as inane as being outside past your court-imposed curfew or testing positive for using cannabis. Most of the other arrests Eclipse recorded were for simple drug possession or outstanding warrants.
Between 2008 and 2010, only 8 per cent of people arrested by the task force were charged with a violent crime. As the city’s crime rate came back down and Eclipse faced increasing scrutiny for its ham-fisted tactics, there was talk at city hall of disbanding the squad in the mid 2010s.
With last year’s increase in homicides, however, the group is bigger than it’s ever been.
“Most of this year’s budget increase has gone to expanding the Eclipse squad,” said Rutland. “They have the most documented history of racial profiling of any squad in Montreal. We shrunk Eclipse in the early 2010s in response to a huge community mobilizations in response to what they were doing to Black youth in Montréal-Nord and St-Michel.
“Now, the administration of (Mayor) Valérie Plante has essentially doubled the size of Eclipse. We don’t know how many resources they’re putting towards (the North End) because they go over budget every year.”
A representative from Mayor Plante’s office said they wouldn’t comment on Merazil’s case before getting more information.
“We trust the Montreal police to handle this file,” said Marykim Gaudreau, a press attaché at the mayor’s office. “We would still like to reiterate that racial or social profiling of any kind is unacceptable.”
Which brings us back to last Sunday.
When the officers finally checked his identification and cleared him of wrongdoing, none of them apologized to Merazil. Several even refused to identify themselves or give their badge numbers, a violation of the department’s code of ethics.
It shouldn’t matter that Merazil is a model citizen. The 27-year-old was recently elected to serve on Montréal-Nord’s youth council. He’s made it his life’s mission to make sure kids in the city’s poorest district are heard at city hall. Nor should it matter that he actually worked with police brass two years ago during consultations over reforming the department’s street check policy.
None of that supersedes one basic fact: he's a citizen whose rights appear to have been trampled by a police department with a track record of profiling young men of colour.
“It’s really difficult for me to talk about what happened,” Merazil said. “I don’t know what comes next, whether it’s filing a complaint or some other action. I’m still trying to have some basic questions about my arrest answered.
“All I know is that far too many of us are put in this position every day, to have to prove our innocence when we were merely trying to live our lives in peace. I’m a pragmatic person, I was happy to try to help the police do a better job when interacting with Black youth. It’s hard to remain that way when things never seem to change.”
Great reporting, as always. Glad you were able to get a reply from police, as brief and useless as that comment is.
I would be curious to know how police officers are recruited. And how much education and/or training a person has to have before they can apply to become a police officer both in Montreal and in Canada. Or Ottawa, given the unwillingness of the Ottawa police to do their job last winter during the trucker occupation. This might be a worthy subject for The Rover to investigate.