Montreal protesters who won settlement with city, police look back on repression

Sophie Vallée-Desbiens says there has been 'too much political repression' at the hands of Montreal police. (Kwabena Oduro/CBC - image credit)
Sophie Vallée-Desbiens says there has been 'too much political repression' at the hands of Montreal police. (Kwabena Oduro/CBC - image credit)

When Sophie Vallée-Desbiens looks at the pile of tickets and fines from when she was arrested with hundreds of other protesters in 2013, she is brought right back to the scene.

"I remember all the repression — the way they tied me up and told me I couldn't talk to a lawyer. I remember they wouldn't give me water even though it was a super hot day. I remember being deprived of my rights," she said.

Vallée-Desbiens was one of almost 300 protesters detained by police while participating in the annual workers' day protest on May 1 that year. She says police used a tactic called "kettling" to corner protesters and arrest them en masse.

She and those arrested with her were handcuffed with tie-wraps, shoved into buses and taken across the city at a late hour with no transit to go home. Despite it being a hot evening, Vallée-Desbiens says they were deprived of food, water and washroom facilities.

Now, she and other protesters say they are relieved to finally have some form of justice after a Quebec judge signed off on a $6-million payout by the City of Montreal to protesters whose rights were violated between 2011 and 2015 last month.

It marks the end of a nearly 10-year legal process that saw 16 class-action suits brought against the city.

Apology not public enough

The city was also ordered to post an apology message on its website for 90 days acknowledging that "certain actions" taken by the police and city administrators infringed on "some" of the fundamental rights of "some" of the protesters.

"I feel relieved that this finally came to an end," said Vallée-Desbiens. "After 10 years it was about time."

"I hope things change. There's been way too many years of political repression by the police."

But Vallée-Desbiens and other protesters aren't satisfied with the city's apology.

The city put a link to a PDF file of its apology at the bottom of the legal affairs department's page on its website. The apology is shy of 100 words.

"[The City of Montreal] recognizes that certain actions taken by the police forces and the municipal administration with regard to the participants in the demonstrations covered by these class actions have carried violation of some of their fundamental rights, thus causing them damage," it said.

"It is for this reason that the City of Montreal publicly apologizes to all these people."

Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante tweeted that "The right to protest is fundamental, and we will always defend it."

"That is why I reiterate the apologies of the City of Montreal to those who protested in 2012 and whose rights were violated by the former bylaw P-6, which has since been repealed by our administration," she said.

Kwabena Oduro/CBC
Kwabena Oduro/CBC

But Sandrine Ricci doesn't believe this apology will make Montrealers feel safer showing up at protests, and she stresses the P-6 bylaw was only repealed because of legal challenges brought forward by citizens.

Ricci was arrested on March 15, 2013 at the annual anti-police brutality protest and remembers asking police why protesters were being detained, only to be met by silence from the officers.

"Several people arrested didn't even know there was a protest, it shows that this approach is problematic on several levels," she said.

"I think I was there for three hours, very cold, can't go to the bathroom, don't have food, don't have water — it's very inhumane conditions."

Some protesters arrested with her that day were given fines of up to $600.

"We need to hear publicly from the mayor and the police chief, to recognize the harm that was caused and how they're going to change their practices," she said.

Montreal police did not issue an apology and did not respond to CBC's request for comment.

The police department says it last used the P-6 bylaw — which required groups planning a demonstration to provide their route to police ahead of time and prohibited protesters from wearing masks — in 2015.

Montreal police refused to confirm whether they have stopped using kettling as a tactic against protesters but said they now prefer an approach of "targeted arrests during protests."

"It's unfortunate that people are scared to protest in a city supposedly in a democratic country," said Ricci.

"The problem of police brutality is a very ancient problem so now we have to change that."