Last December, Montreal’s mayor Valérie Plante released the city’s 2022 operating budget. In the context of soaring rent prices, and a growing crisis of homelessness, cutting the existing housing budget was in her eyes the “right thing to do”. What took the overwhelming lead in her priorities was to increase the already inflated police budget. Apparently, the second-largest police budget increase in the history of the Montreal police (SPVM) is the best card our “progressive” mayor has to play.
One disappointment after another
This past November, Plante was re-elected as mayor, once again defeating Denis Coderre of Ensemble Montréal, who was the candidate that embodied the widely resented establishment. Although Plante won, she managed to lose 25,000 votes compared to her 2017 election. Montrealers are slowly pulling away from her centrist politics, despite her attempts to appear left-wing by placing emphasis, at least in words, on matters related to the environment and housing.
Since first being elected in 2017, Plante and her party Projet Montréal have failed to deliver on many of the promises that gained them popularity in the first place (like the once-promised pink metro line, which has now been swept under the rug). These disappointments are particularly glaring when it comes to the questions of housing and policing.
In 2020, in the midst of the pandemic and a housing crisis, thousands of people lost their jobs and homes, and tent cities mushroomed all over the country. In the bitter cold of November, Plante sent in riot police to dismantle the tent city that had appeared on Notre-Dame Street in Montreal. Later in a press conference she referred to this as “the right thing to do”.
More than a year later, things have gotten even further out of hand. This January, news agencies reported the death of Stella Stosik—the second homeless Montrealer to die of hypothermia in only 10 days. The first was a 74-year-old man living in an encampment in the Notre-Dame de Grâce neighborhood. Plante, in lieu of funding to address the crisis, offered only crocodile tears.
While homelessness is quickly becoming an epidemic, she responds by shoveling more money into police budgets. In her budget for 2022, the $5.9 million set to address homelessness is eclipsed by the astronomical $724-million budget she set for policing. Her thoughts on the subject: “We are acting responsibly”.
After her re-election, Québec solidaire spokesperson Gabriel Nadeau Dubois said: “What I see is that all over Quebec, Quebeckers have put in power municipal governments that want to do more in terms of public transit and in terms of housing”.
While it is absolutely true that the mood in society is shifting towards the left, and away from the kind of establishment politics represented by Coderre, it would be a grave mistake to believe that the Projet Montréal administration will do much to address the crises affecting working class people. While Plante does not go as far as François Legault and our provincial housing minister Andrée Laforest, both of whom deny the existence of a housing crisis, in her concrete actions she isn’t far from these right-wing representatives of the capitalists—especially from Coderre.
Coderre had spent his entire campaign waving the spectre of gun violence—opportunistically using the media coverage of gang violence in the city’s northeast—to position himself as the candidate capable of restoring order. He promised to increase the police budget, and denounced Plante as the candidate for defunding the police, in reference to the demand that emerged from the 2020 Black Lives Matter movement.
Plante, instead of assuming this left-wing image, tried to counter these attacks from the right by trying to be even more pro-police than Coderre. She matched his promise of hiring 250 police officers, and even bragged about having spent more on the police than him. She has indeed proven that she can be just as much the candidate of “law and order” as Coderre. A significant portion of this year’s police budget increase will be used to hire 122 new officers, adding to what is already the largest police force per capita in any Canadian city.
This is not the first time that Plante and Projet Montréal have increased the SPVM’s funding. In 2020 the police budget was $679.1 million. Plante raised this by another $14 million in 2021, despite widespread unpopularity, while simultaneously slashing $13 million from housing.
Neither is this an isolated phenomenon. This year all of Canada’s 10 largest municipal and regional police forces are set for budget increases. The question is: why is there such an insistence on inflating police budgets to such extremes? To answer this we first must understand the context in which this is happening.
We should keep in mind that it was only two years ago that we saw the Black Lives Matter movement, the largest-ever protest in American history, centered around racism and police brutality. Slogans like “defund the police” and “abolish the police” gained widespread support among workers and youth.
Naturally, as movements often do, it poured over the border. Throughout the summer of 2020 there were many demonstrations against police violence, racism, and the overinflated police budgets in Montreal.
Plante publicly entertained the idea of defunding the police, given the pressure of demands coming from the movement. A poll conducted by Projet Montréal itself showed that 73 per cent of Montreal residents were in favor of decreasing the police budget.
The ruling class was ready to entertain tokenistic and symbolic measures to appease the massive anger that was unleashed at the constant police violence against Black people—but at the end of the day the police are essential to the enforcement of the capitalist order. While the right wing and the police were in retreat at the peak of the BLM movement, they have since regained their confidence. The ruling class will never accept demands to stop funding its enforcers.
So, when a series of tragic and spectacular cases of gun violence struck in the city, right-wing media and politicians latched onto it. They made it seem like Montreal was engulfed in chaos and war, with articles titled “Homicides in 2021: Worst balance sheet in 10 years” and “Montreal is headed towards a murderous year”. Quebec Premier François Legault even said that he “doesn’t recognize Montreal”.
In August 2021 Yves Francoeur, president of the Montreal Police Brotherhood, emboldened by the hysteria, berated Plante for not putting more officers onto the streets. Two city councilors and members of Coderre’s Ensemble Montréal, Karine Boivin Roy and Abdelhaq Sari, joined him, claiming that Plante’s position towards the police budget was “too little, too late”. In this way, “public safety” became the weapon of choice with which the right wing chose to beat Plante and Projet Montréal.
Plante, in response, immediately added another $5.5 million to the budget, and hired another 42 officers.
But in spite of all the hysterics of the right-wing pundits, the actual facts behind this “spike in gun violence” are overblown in the extreme. According to the SPVM’s own data the number of gun-related crimes in 2020 was actually lower than it was in either 2016 or 2017. In general, rates of gun violence have been declining since the 1990s, completely contrary to the impression given by the right wing!
Yet violent crime, and particularly gun violence, has been an ongoing focus of media attention in the recent period, both in the United States and in Canada. While there can be no doubt that gun violence is a problem in Montreal, as it is in many other cities, both the police and the media have blown it completely out of proportion to suit their own interests.
‘The war on guns’
This hyper-exaggeration of the issue by politicians and the media has subsequently created opportunities for political commentators to look for scapegoats on whom to blame the rise in violent crime.
Marc Ouimet, a researcher in criminology at the Université de Montréal, has made a number of public appearances claiming that the shootings in Montreal are caused by “hip hop culture” imported from the United States – going on to suggest a “stop and frisk” program like the one implemented in New York City in the 1990s. Using “hip-hop culture” as a thinly veiled euphemism to argue that the source of gun violence is really Black Montrealers, this is nothing other than an attempt to deflect blame onto Montreal’s marginalized communities and away from the actual systemic causes of violence. It is as racist as it is idiotic.
Similarly, Journal de Montréal columnist Denise Bombardier flaunted her xenophobia by describing the situation in Montreal as a “race war” and saying that Montreal is becoming more and more like Toronto, where “racial criminality” reigns. She blames “the enormous and obviously unattainable challenges in terms of the social integration of immigrants.”
These are only a few examples, among many others, of attempts to whip up fear and hatred, deflecting from the actual root of the problem. Pumping money into the SPVM will never address crime, since increasing police budgets and hiring more officers does nothing to solve its actual causes.
If rates of gun violence actually declined as police budgets rose, cities like New York would be gun-free paradises! The annual budget for the NYPD sits at approximately $10.4 billion dollars (more than the entire military budgets of Myanmar, Ukraine, and North Korea combined). Meanwhile the rate of shootings in New York has risen to its highest levels since the early 2000s. Last summer, former governor Andrew Cuomo even declared a state of emergency—far from celebrating the paradise of a gun-free utopia. The fact is that there is no correlation between higher police budgets and lower rates of crime.
The determinant of crime is not the size of a given police force, but rather the poverty and inequality within the society in question. It is no accident that in areas of abject poverty the rates of crime are higher than in those of relative stability. As we have seen poverty and inequality grow throughout the pandemic—as the rich increase their wealth while the rest are left devastated by unemployment and inflation—it is no surprise whatsoever to see rates of crime rise across North America. The money funneled into police budgets is not intended to address this crisis, but rather to hold down by force those growing ranks of people who are being pushed deeper into poverty.
Moreover, all this increase in policing will only make things worse for Black Montrealers and racialized people in general.
Escouade Quiétude, a squad created by Plante in 2019 to tackle weapons circulation on the island, is a prime example of this. In its first four months of existence, 74 per cent of its arrests were made on Black Montrealers. It was found that less than 30 per cent of these charges were actually related to firearms.
According to Ted Rutland, an associate professor at Concordia University who has researched the history of policing in Montreal: “Black people are 42 times more likely to be arrested and charged by the anti-gun squad than white people.”
Another study, this time commissioned by the SPVM, showed that Indigenous women are 11 times more likely to be randomly stopped on the street and checked by the police.
Let’s not forget that between 2000 and 2017, SPVM officers killed 32 people. The SPVM has blood on its hands too!
These statistics shine a stark light on Plante’s supposed “war on guns”. Feeding into the fear that everyone is in danger, she created a special police squadron to tackle the problem—but concretely speaking, all this has led to is a disproportionate singling out of minority groups for stops, searches, and arrests.
Instead of paying for pepper spray, batons, tasers, and increased surveillance, this money could be put towards social programs, affordable housing, mental health resources, and public works which would actually address the problems that lead to violence and crime. This, however, is not the preferred approach of government officials, no matter how progressive their phraseology.
Reform or revolution?
Plante tells us: “Ever since I became mayor, my vision has always been the same… I’ve always talked about the same things: ecological transition, housing, transport and economic development.” And this is precisely all it will ever be: talk. As we mentioned, she has failed to deliver on many of the things she has promised. The only thing she seems actually committed to is the police budget.
Her failure to address root issues is not, however, the result of a personal flaw, but rather points to the very nature of reformist politics. Whatever the initial good intentions of left-reformists like Plante may be, by insisting on working within the present system they are ultimately forced to bow before the needs of capitalism.
At its core, the role of the police boils down to “protecting and serving”… private property and the capitalist order. The capitalists who rule our society need armed men to defend their immense wealth from the impoverished masses. This is all the more true in this epoch of deep crisis of capitalism, when a huge anger is simmering against the high cost of living and the outrageous inequalities. This anger could explode at any moment, as we have seen in one country after another in recent years. The ruling class is preparing for this by investing in its henchmen.
Valérie Plante began her career fighting against tuition hikes and hydraulic fracking—actions which today are appealing to many in a leading political figure. But after the 2021 budget release, this activist image was left tarnished. She has found herself standing in the same camp as the establishment politicians that Montrealers are sick of.
To end this continuous cycle of arming state thugs, our demands must be to take the money from this inflated police budget and the unused wealth sitting in corporate bank accounts to raise the standard of living of working people everywhere.
This includes ending homelessness once and for all through the redistribution of unused housing, massive investment into health care and mental health services which have been decimated by decades of austerity, and by abolishing unemployment to ensure a livelihood for all people regardless of profitability.
As we have said, there is no correlation whatsoever between the number of armed officers roaming the streets and the rates of crime. Rather, crime can be measured by the desperation, poverty, and everyday struggle for survival within society. It is only by attacking crime at these root causes that we can have any hope of success in defeating it. For this we must struggle against the perpetuators of this impoverishment—the Québecois and Canadian capitalist class. The labour movement can only combat violence, crime, and homelessness by attacking the capitalist system and by fighting for a socialist society.