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Political policing in Montreal

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November 9, 2011

Political policing in Montreal

Human rights complaints filed against Montreal police’s GAMMA squad

by Christian Macdonald

Montreal police officers at the ready during a protest. The Montreal Police Force are being criticized for forming a new squad that investigates anarchist and marginal political organizations. Photo: Christian Macdonald

MONTREAL—The creation of a new police squad meant to monitor anarchist and marginal political groups is raising serious questions about the politicization of the police in Montreal. At least four organizations have objected to the formation of the unit dubbed GAMMA, and two have filed official complaints with human rights and ethics commissions since the public became aware of the unit in May.

“This squad is really a new kind of political police to fight against social movements,” said Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, a spokesperson for the Association for Student Union Solidarity (ASSE). The student coalition, one of the groups filing complaints, saw three of its executive members and one other student member arrested by the GAMMA squad this summer.

The GAMMA unit was formed in January 2011 as an adjunct to the Montreal Police Force's Organized Crime Unit. According to their website, the unit uses tactics developed to monitor mafia and street gangs in order to keep tabs on political activists.

GAMMA's existence came to light last spring in an article published in the Journal de Montreal following the arrest of several activists in their homes in relation to two separate incidents. In response, two groups, the ASSE and the Coalition against Repression and Police Brutality (CRAP), filed complaints with the Quebec Human Rights Commission.

The complainants allege that GAMMA’s mandate contravenes Section 10 of the Quebec Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which protects the right to peaceful demonstration, without distinction based on race, religion or political conviction. In response to the complaints, the Montreal Police Service (SPVM) issued a statement proclaiming “full and unconditional support” for the Quebec and Canadian charters of rights and freedoms, but maintained police must act to prevent crime and maintain public order.

Last March, members of ASSE participated in an occupation of the offices of Quebec Minister of Finance Raymond Bachand in opposition to tuition fee hikes. It wasn't until July that the GAMMA squad proceeded to arrest four people for their involvement. Three ASSE executives are facing charges of mischief, aggression, and break and enter. “There is nothing criminal in our intentions or actions,” said Nadeau-Dubois, who maintains that the arrests were politically motivated.

In a separate case, the GAMMA squad arrested four demonstrators in late June, this time in relation to a confrontation between police and protesters at an anti-capitalist march on May 1. Accounts differ as to what actually happened at the march. Police claim they were attacked by a group of 15 protesters with wooden and metal sticks, and pelted with projectiles. Demonstrators say police on horseback charged a crowd of parents and children who were there in the hopes of limiting police aggression. Approximately ten minutes after splitting the march in two, police proceeded to snatch Patrice Legendre, a photographer for the communist newspaper Partisan, from the crowd. According to eyewitnesses, a group of protesters pulled him back and a struggle ensued, until police discharged a canister of tear gas and the march continued.

Legendre and three others were arrested at their homes on June 29. It was the first public operation by the GAMMA squad. Nearly 30 officers made the arrests, and the four activists were charged with offenses including assaulting a police officer, assault with a weapon and obstruction of justice. Under their bail conditions they cannot participate in any "non-peaceful" demonstration, carry flags or placards, wear a scarf or carry a backpack at any demonstration.

According to the Partisan, police began monitoring the Maison Norman Bethune bookstore run by the Revolutionary Communist Party following the May 1 march. The interrogations of arrestees were monitored by an investigator from the Integrated National Security Enforcement Team (INSET), an inter-jurisdictional anti-terrorism group that allows collaboration between CSIS, Canadian Border Security, RCMP, and municipal police. This police intelligence organization was formed as recently as 2010. Attempts were made to link the accused marchers to the detonation of an explosive device outside a Canadian Forces recruitment centre in Trois Rivières, a town 140 kilometres north-east of Montreal, last year, but witnesses failed to identify the accused from photos.

Although no one from the Coalition Against Police Repression has been specifically targeted by the GAMMA squad, the group has filed complaints with both the Human Rights Commission and the police ethics commission. In an interview, Alexandre Popovic, spokesperson for the group, objected to a statement made by Deputy Chief Robinette to the Montreal Gazette, that, "[Anarchists] are using various protests, like those about [police shooting victim] Fredy Villanueva, tuition fee hikes and even St-Jean Baptiste—as a pretext to vandalize, throw projectiles and assault police officers."

“This is just slander,” said Popovic. CRAP has organized several demonstrations in Montreal North for Fredy Vilanueva, a youth killed by police in 2008. "All were peaceful, calm, and no police were ever attacked. So calling them [anarchists] violent did make me angry, because it’s simply not true.” If the GAMMA unit was created to police vandalism at demonstrations as the SPVM has stated, "then why does the acronym translate to ‘Monitor Activities of Marginal Movements and Anarchists?'" he asks.

“CRAP is not a specifically anarchist group, but we do participate in anarchist organized events like lectures and book fairs," said Popovic. "Why should we have to worry that we are being spied on by police, while an extreme right wing organization doesn’t?”

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) has also weighed in on the activities of the GAMMA squad. In August they sent a letter to the SPVM expressing concern and asking for several clarifications about GAMMA's actions and mandate. “In a democracy, there is no justification for police to target 'anarchists' who commit violence or property damage any more than liberals, conservatives, or socialists,” wrote CCLA counsel general Natalie Desrosiers.

When asked if he were optimistic about whether the Quebec Human Rights Commission or the police ethics commissioner would rule the GAMMA squad to be a violation of the Quebec charter, Popovic was ambivalent. “Police often believe that they can get away with anything, but once in a while the courts will recognize police abuse. Sometimes they get a surprise, ‘Oh shit, I’m guilty.’ So people shouldn’t hesitate to file complaints when they violate our rights.”

Christian MacDonald is a full time cook, a part time writer, and an ideological freelancer. He’s from Cape Breton, and currently lives in Montreal.

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