“Have you had any issues with Aboriginal people?” This was the question that police officers in Montreal may have been going door-to-door asking residents of certain neighbourhoods.
It happened at least once – and in a triumph of bad luck for the Montreal police (SPVM), the person who answered the knock was Ossie Michelin, a Nunatsiavut Inuk journalist from Labrador who happens to have a more European-looking complexion. Officers told him they were knocking on doors in Michelin’s downtown neighbourhood – near Cabot Square where homeless Inuit often hang out – asking whether residents had been having problems with homeless people.
Except Officer Alex Mitu didn’t say “itinérants” (the French word for homeless). Instead he said “autochtones” – Aboriginal people. And while he quickly corrected himself, Michelin said he continued to talk about “homeless Inuit sleeping in parks and scaring people.” The officer warned Michelin that he should keep an eye out for homeless people in alleys trying to get into backyards and break into houses, and he gave Michelin a flyer explaining this was part of a proactive strategy following complaints the previous summer about the behaviour of homeless “autochtones.” The flyer urged residents to call 911 if they saw anyone:
- Consuming alcoholic beverages
- Loitering or being passed out drunk
- Creating a disturbance
- Interrupting traffic
The flyer went on to state that the SPVM intends to prioritize helping people and referring them to community resources, but underlines that they do not rule out enforcing municipal laws. The flyer didn’t use the words “homeless” or “Indigenous,” but Michelin said he felt it was clear from Officer Mitu’s choice of words just who the SPVM was targeting.
Cabot Square, at the corner of Ste-Catherine and Atwater streets, has been a hangout for homeless people for decades, and the square’s homeless population has a higher percentage of Inuit than in other neighbourhoods in part because of the nearby Fort Street housing provided to Inuit in town for medical treatment.
“There are homeless Inuit around here,” Michelin said. “There are lots of homeless people. The housing on Fort Street is still there, and there are a lot of people who live in Verdun and Pointe-Saint-Charles, as well, because it’s cheap and more English. Plus, there are several centres in Verdun, including an employment centre. So people walk between Verdun and Fort Street all the time, and this area is on the route.”
When the doorbell rang, Michelin was entertaining his friend Stephen Agluvak Puskas, a Nunavut Inuk researcher, radio producer and activist. They’d just returned from Home Depot and were in the process of putting together a barbeque for a dinner party that evening.
“We were waiting on more people to come and that’s when the doorbell rang,” he said. “I thought it was guests arriving early to make supper with us!”
In other words, the two Inuit professionals were doing what most Montrealers do on a warm evening – grilling some burgers, cracking a few cold ones and relaxing with friends. Until the police showed up to warn them about drunk Inuit. And that’s one of the things that really bothered Michelin, who saw it as racial profiling.
Michelin notes that there are plenty of other populations in Montreal who engage in the same kinds of behaviour that the flyer warned against – drinking, fighting, passing out drunk or causing disturbances – but that police do not seem to be in a hurry to warn residents about.
Inuit like to hit the town just like everybody else – especially when they’re out of their communities for a business or school trip, or a visit to relatives.
“You’re in Montreal – you go to the bars and party!” Michelin exclaimed. “I’m from Labrador and I’ve come down to the city many times. It’s exciting because I don’t have to drink with the same damn people!”
But the apparent assumption by the officers that Inuit are more likely to be alcoholics or homeless was what hurt the most, he said.
“With the cops using ‘autochtones’ and ‘itinérant’ interchangeably, it promotes this stereotype to do with visibility,” he told the Nation. “A lot of people ask me, ‘Why are there so many homeless Aboriginal people?’ Well, that’s because they’re the ones you notice. This just drives home the stereotype that Aboriginal people in the city are homeless. That’s far from the case! It’s a large, diverse population – some are homeless, but many are not. You see well-to-do Indigenous folks walking down the street so you think they’re Latino or Asian, but then you see a homeless person and presume they’re obviously an Inuk. The cops using the two words interchangeably just spreads that message around.”
Some homeless Inuit at Cabot Square were not happy about their recent interactions with police. Speaking to the Nation on the condition of anonymity, one Inuk woman said, “I know what my rights are. And I bet they know them too. But that doesn’t matter, they still slap the cuffs on me.”
“They use violence when they could use communication,” said her friend, a man who also declined to give his name.
Michelin has complained to the Montreal police ethics commission about the incident, which he said was racial profiling. However, in an interview with the CBC, SPVM Officer Alex Mitu denied the characterization. “I don’t want to call that a mistake,” Mitu said. “It was just a slip of the tongue.”
According to SPVM Aboriginal Liaison Officer Carlo De Angelis, it’s a mistake to believe that the SPVM or Station 15 are cracking down on homeless Inuit.
“The [flyer] lists behaviours that will not be accepted by the Montreal police,” he told the Nation, “but it does not target any community, race, colour or language. We’ve worked so hard with all the communities. With the Aboriginal community, we have a great relationship with the Réseau, with Makivik, [with other Indigenous organizations…], everybody’s working together. Those six principles and behaviours target nobody, only the individual who does those behaviours. If I behave that way, then it’s not accepted.”
De Angelis pointed out that just prior to the incident, Station 15 had called on him to help them organize “mixed patrols” with representatives of the Native Friendship Centre of Montreal and the Chez Doris women’s shelter. Following that meeting, Station 15 had scheduled those patrols to begin at the end of May and continue throughout June. After six years of working with vulnerable populations, De Angelis (whose parents were Italian immigrants) feels he has made strong and close ties with Montreal’s Indigenous communities.
Asked whether he notices Indigenous people in Montreal who are worried they’ll be unfairly targeted by the police, De Angelis said, “Personally speaking, whenever I’m on patrol, the amount of years I’ve been creating a relationship with the Aboriginal community, they come towards me. Sometimes they even forget that I’m a police officer. I don’t feel that [they fear police officers] at all.”
De Angelis runs 45-minute sensitivity training sessions for different stations throughout the city on key issues related to Aboriginal homelessness – six so far this year. At the moment he’s upgrading the training to a four-hour program, which he hopes to have in place by next year.
“The objective is to have the police officer have an understanding,” he said. “Sometimes you see somebody under the influence of alcohol. It’s a symptom. You explain to them the traumas they live with, the past, the residential schools. Give them the historical context: why they come to Montreal, the actual situation here, how many members of the communities are in Montreal, and what resources are available. Exchange with the intervention workers what works and what makes an intervention easier – and work together, because the key is to have everybody working as one.”
Michelin, however, noted that Officer Mitu and his partner had received this training last year, and it didn’t change much about their interaction with him.
“In theory they learned about this – but what does that mean?” Michelin asked. “If you spent a few hours on this a year ago, is that really an effective strategy? Even if they do a whole week every few years!”
Citing recent reports by the CBC that the SPVM is 93% white, with only 7% of its officers drawn from visible minorities, Michelin said, “It speaks a lot to the reality of who wants to become a police officer. In Montreal, 70% of the people identify themselves as white. That’s a big gap between the number of citizens of different races and the number in the police force. It’s not reflective of the city, and because of that it breeds environments where people don’t realize that saying things like ‘Watch out for homeless Native people’ is not okay. There are systemic issues, but a lot of it is the culture of the police force.”
Though Michelin said he was glad that the SPVM had an Aboriginal Liaison Officer, he was disappointed that it was not a person from an Aboriginal community.
“There’s a big difference between a title and the structure and culture of an organization,” Michelin said. “Saying and doing these things is a step in the right direction, but not so much when it compares to the actual reality of things.”