In just over a week, the City of Montreal will be adopting its budget for 2021 and with it comes a $15 million boost for police services, cuts to social housing, and as frontline workers see it – possible headaches for the homeless Indigenous population.
“I want to show Montrealers at what point their daily life is important, and that we want to help them in that,” Montreal Mayor Valerie Plante said in a livestreamed video the morning she tabled her administrations fourth budget.
Plante insists the majority of the population is happy with the 2021 budget announcement.
Compiled in another Facebook video are positive comments from citizens about investments in green technologies, a 50 per cent transit fare reduction for seniors, and $300 million over 10 years to build an “urban forest” – all announced as part of the numbers.
However, a coalition of 65 community groups is concerned by the decision to allocate over $660 million to the municipal police force, known as the SPVM, in the next year.
A survey completed over the summer showed majority support for the “defund the police” movement and platforms.
Heavy protesting followed, with advocates only amplifying their calls to defund police after Sheffield Matthews – a black man in crisis – was shot and killed by SPVM officers in late October.
A total of 32 individuals were killed by SPVM officers between 2000 and 2017.
The Indigenous groups within the coalition say increasing the police budget could directly impact homeless Indigenous women.
“Indigenous women on Montreal’s unceded territory continue to go missing, to be murdered in total impunity, to experience abuse at the hands of police, to die because of a lack of access to healthcare, and to not be listened to,” reads a statement from the Defund the Police Coalition MTL.
“Defunding the police and reinvesting in communities is an essential step to end this violence. Indigenous women who are most at risk of violence, disappearance, murder, and preventable death are the same Indigenous women who are most targeted by police and most at risk of being detained,” according to the statement.
Last week, the coalition tabled what they feel is a feasible, alternative budget called “The People’s Vision.”
Demand number one: cut the SPVM’s budget by 50 per cent and reallocate the funds to community-run projects and services. Number two: disarm and demilitarize.
The next of the coalition’s ten demands involve re-investing in unarmed service teams, youth programs, proper housing, and decolonizing justice systems.
They also call for decriminalization of “all drugs, sex work, and HIV status”
“Police are neither trained, nor should their mandates be confused, with appropriate, accountable, and safe responses to people in mental health crises,” a statement from the coalition says.
“Violence and racism are perpetuating tactics used by police. Therefore, police systems cannot be reformed to be made less violent and harmful, because they were built and continue to thrive from these tactics.”
“It’s not just to take away from police – it’s to replace it with something better, more efficient, and not so tragic where it ends in a death,” explained Jessica Quijano, founder of the Iskweu Project with the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal.
“I know for a fact that we can do all this work without police. I’m very confident in that, because I’m already doing it,” she added.
Quijano says the city is in the midst of a housing crisis, as well as an opioid crisis. Frontline workers, overall, have been calling for compassion as winter approaches.
Residents of a tent city on Notre-Dame street, for example, have already had their tents dismantled once by force.
The COVID-19 pandemic also complicated day-to-day life for those who rely on the city’s shelters. Under the government’s protective orders, many of them were forced to reduce services or close altogether.
Clients of The Open Door Shelter in the Milton-Parc neighbourhood – forced onto the streets by these closures – say their tents and personal effects are regularly confiscated by police.
Across the city, near Cabot Square, Indigenous women are still being ticketed for trivial infractions at a rate far higher than anyone else.
A study commissioned by the SPVM showed Indigenous women are 11 times more likely to be randomly stopped and street checked by police.
“I think the pandemic has really shown the problems that are evident,” said Marina Boulos-Winton, executive director of Chez Doris, a women’s shelter with a substantial Inuit clientele.
Thanks to newly-secured funding from the Makivik Corporation, Chez Doris will be running 24/7 for the next few months. It’s the only women’s shelter in the city currently doing so.
In the Viens commission final report, Judge Jacques Viens recommended the Quebec government fund “creation of a shelter specifically reserved for the homeless Inuit clientele in Montreal.”
The situation facing the homeless is no doubt precarious – Chez Doris lost seven clients since summertime to either overdose or traumatic injury – but not everyone feels defunding the police is the answer.
“I don’t think that boosting funding to the police will compromise the safety of Indigenous women in Montreal,’ explained Marina Boulos-Winton, Chez Doris’ executive director. “The funding and the budget is essentially the same – they got a two per cent increase, which is barely cost of living adjustments and inflation.“
“What I think the police ought to do – instead of defunding – is redirect funding,” she added.
The SPVM brought in an Indigenous liaison worker in 2015, and Boulos-Winton says he’s readily available, seven days a week, and always willing to lend a hand if a shelter client is in need
“He works very well, but he’s the only one,” she added.
She also feels having caseworkers from Indigenous-run organizations accompany police officers on certain calls is a viable option.
“The Indigenous population is affected more by homelessness than any other demographic group, but they’re also affected a lot by addictions, and trauma – and so they really need culturally-appropriate services to resolve those problems,” Boulos-Winton said.
For her part, Plante maintains that a pandemic is the wrong time for any kind of sweeping reform.
“It’s a time where it’s quite unstable, if I could say,” Plante told reporters when asked if she’d consider the Coalition’s demands.
“It would be irresponsible to take – to right away just cut into the budget without having any ideas how to reallocate that money, for example. In the proper, efficient, and pragmatic way,” she explained.
The Defund the Police Coalition MTL, meanwhile, is urging citizens to continue putting pressure on city officials through phone calls and emails.
Montreal officially adopts its 2021 budget on Dec. 7.