One gutsy judge demands justice

A Montreal judge has suspended his coroner's inquiry into the fatal shooting of a young black man until legal aid is available for the victims—not just the police who did the shooting

Quebec has this week seen one gutsy judge take a stand against the establishment out of his stated respect for justice, and his stance couldn’t be more pertinent for any society in which minorities are so often in conflict with police. Particularly young black male minorities.

The story is textbook big city. Young black guy hanging around in a park with friends. His friends are hit by police bullets but survive—one with a shot to the arm, the other major internal injuries to a lung and kidney. Fredy Villaneuva, 18, is fatally shot by the police who are actually looking for his brother. It sparks days of rioting in Montreal North, a community that is over-represented in every social and economic negative. The two police officers are cleared of any criminal charges but there’s an explosive reaction to the ugly undertones of police racial profiling and unfair treatment of young black men.

It has refused to die down in the ensuing 9 months.

Fast-forward to this week and Judge Robert Sansfaçon, acting as coroner, begins his inquiry into the death. On day two he abruptly suspends proceedings indefinitely because key witnesses wouldn’t participate.

On the face of that, a response might be ‘tough—don’t participate, don’t complain’. Of course it is not that simple. This inquiry was crippled by bureaucracy months ago when the Quebec government decided it would not pay for legal representation for anyone but the police and Villaneuva’s brother. Any non-police witnesses, no matter how key, would have to stump up for their own lawyers. The Villaneuva family would be provided what was called legal “accompaniment” to help them understand what was going on during hearing days only.

What is critical here is that Judge Sansfaçon, acting as coroner, is conducting this inquiry with the mandate to determine the cause of death and supply any suggestions for prevention of other deaths. That’s it, but prevention of other deaths in similar circumstances is a fairly big deal in the type of neighbourhood from which Fredy Villaneuva hailed. Should it not be glaringly obvious that any answers to prevent deaths be welcomed with open arms not just by those groups representing the under-represented, but by the bureaucracies which inevitably pick up the tab. In this case, the over-represented.

So a quick synopsis…Young guy from poor neighbourhood gets shot; many eye-witnesses from poor neighbourhood available to give evidence on their take of police actions, but they have to pay for the pleasure of having a lawyer to help them prepare, testify and be cross examined. The police—and rightly so—have legal representation written into their contracts. Two police officers duly turn up with four lawyers.

Well that’s not good enough for Judge Sansçon, and all power to him. For 45 minutes at the beginning of day two he outlines why he is not prepared to continue. In short, too many involved in the whole sorry process have either lost confidence in it, or are not there because they can’t afford lawyers, or both.

And guess what. That seemingly simple move to prevent a masquerade by halting what was inevitably going to be a one-sided fiasco resulted in an almost instantaneous about face from the Quebec Public Security Minister, who says the government is, after all, willing to pay for lawyers to represent two of the witnesses who were injured.

The bureaucratic cover is if the coroner thought they should be represented by lawyers, then the government would go along with that.

Unfortunately it is too little, too late. The credibility of the inquiry as it stands—or rests—is in tatters, and the confidence anyone from Villaneuva’s neighbourhood can have in the ‘system’ is equally shredded. Perhaps not as much as if the inquiry plodded on regardless, but major damage has nevertheless been done. The startling aspect is no authority had the foresight to step in for damage control and rectify the bleeding obvious before the damned inquiry began.

So here’s the mess.

The government has been called upon to front with justice for all. The acting coroner wants to know how to prevent a future situation in which from a group of young men playing dice three end are shot by police, one fatally. To do so he needs to hear from all involved so he has called on the government to rectify the glaring imbalance in which the police have state-funded representation and those who were ‘victims’ do not. The government took approximately zero seconds to acquiesce.

Trouble is the family and supporters now want more. They want a full public inquiry, which to be fair they have wanted all along, to address concerns about racial profiling, police brutality and the socio-economic conditions of some of Montreal’s neighbourhoods. The spotlight is now definitely on what they want, and the government has only itself to blame for that.

Perhaps the coroner’s inquiry will resume, who knows. What is for sure is that the hostility neighbourhoods such as Villaneuva’s have towards the police has been reinforced by this performance. Justice not only appears, but has been proven to be, for the police and those who can afford it. Doesn’t matter if you were right beside your best friend who died, and you suffered major internal injuries in the process. All the inquiries and noises the system wishes to make about finding out why ring pretty hollow when you can’t afford to participate in the process.

Judge Sansfaçon should take a mighty bow, and while he’s there he may deign to wipe the egg off the government’s ruddy face, but you couldn’t blame him if he resists.