Black folks still not welcome in Montreal suburb

Serge Damord

It’s the only place where he’s ever lived, yet Isayah Carmichael Guillaume says the city of Repentigny, Que., still doesn’t feel like home.

“I grew up here but it’s not my town,” said the 21-year-old Black man who works as a waiter. “I don’t feel like I have a place here and, unfortunately, there’s a lot of people that keep reminding us of that.”

Repentigny’s quiet, pedestrian-friendly streets lined with large homes, driveways and lush, green grass projects a peaceful lifestyle.

But Guillaume and many other Black people who live in the suburb of more than 84,000 people located just east of Montreal say they’re not comfortable there.

A big part of that discomfort is due to the community’s strained relationship with Repentigny police, which, earlier this month, hit a new low.

On Aug 1, police responded to a 911 call about a man in distress who was holding a knife.

Marie-Mireille Bence, a Haitian Quebecer, is the one who placed that call because she was worried her son would hurt himself. She was hoping police would be able to get him to a hospital.

Instead, the intervention ended with officers shooting Jean René Junior Olivier three times in the stomach, and the province’s police watchdog leading an investigation into the 37-year-old Black man’s death.

Life in Repentigny

Repentigny police say it was the first time in the city’s history that one of their officers shot a resident.

Bence says her son no longer had the knife in his hand when he was shot, and she believes he was killed because of the anti-Black racism that exists within the local police force.

The shooting has many Black residents once again wondering if they will ever be treated fairly and respectfully in the majority-white city — a feeling that’s lingered for years, even as the number of Black people in Repentigny has skyrocketed in recent decades.

According to census data, only about 500 Black people lived in Repentigny in 2001. In 2016, that number has jumped to more than 5,800 — an increase of more than 1,000 per cent, mostly spearheaded by Haitian Quebecers.

The data also show that outside of white, French-speaking Quebecers, the Haitian community is by far the second largest cultural group in the city.

Serge Damord is among the senior members of that community. He moved his family to Repentigny nearly 20 years ago.

He says it was a chance for him to live in a quieter area and in the type of quality home that would be much more expensive on the island of Montreal.

However, Damord, who is retired, says his family’s time in Repentigny has been marred by a series of unpleasant run-ins with local police.

Many Black residents say they moved to Repentigny after finding quality homes that were much more affordable than those for sale on the island of Montreal.

He says a few years ago, his son was pulled over seven times in one week.

His son had been working at a local car dealership, so it was normal for him to be driving around in one type of luxury car one day, and another the next.

“I never saw [an officer] grab any other people, only the Black community. The African people, the Haitian people, they always grab them. I don’t know why,” Damord said.

Pierre Richard Thomas, a local resident who organized a sit-in protest at city hall a few days after Olivier’s death, moved to Repentigny six years ago, for reasons that are identical to Damord’s.

He said he believes the rapid growth of Repentigny’s Black population has led to resentment within police and among some white neighbours.

“They don’t want to see us,” Thomas said. “If you listen to them talk among themselves in grocery stores, it’s as if they think we’re invading them.”