CANADA

Law and disorder

Rioters attack an unpopular police force

DAN BURKE August 27 1990
CANADA

Law and disorder

Rioters attack an unpopular police force

DAN BURKE August 27 1990

Law and disorder

Rioters attack an unpopular police force

CANADA

For more than a month, officers of the Quebec provincial police force, the Sûreté du Québec (SQ), had confronted heavily armed Mohawk Warriors across barricades erected outside the Mohawk reserve near Oka, Que., and along the Mercier Bridge linking suburban Châteauguay with Montreal. But, for three consecutive nights last week, the police force’s riot-equipped officers—backed up by members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police—were themselves under siege. Nonnative residents of Châteauguay, their anger fuelled by frustration at the continuing closure of a key commuting route, pelted police with chunks of concrete, pieces of iron and flaming Molotov cocktails—leaving several SQ officers burned and bruised. Finally, SQ director Robert Lavigne made a startling admission. Declared Lavigne: “We are incapable of maintaining peace and order.”

It was a demoralizing concession for a force that already suffered from low public esteem.

Among many Quebecers, the SQ has long been associated with heavy-handed intervention in labor disputes. And native distrust of the force has led at least one Indian band to ban the SQ from its reserve.

But last week, the extent of the force’s exhaustion finally became clear when SQ representatives warned Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa privately that his provincial police were close to mutiny.

Bourassa responded late on Friday, requesting the Canadian Armed Forces to move a contingent of troops—already on standby outside Oka and Châteauguay—in to replace the SQ units at both sets of barricades.

Chief of Defence Staff Gen. John de Chastelain stressed that the troops—equipped with armored personnel carriers—would dismantle the police barricades at Oka and Châteauguay over the next several days. But he added that they would allow the Indian barricades to stand while federal and provincial negotiators sought a peaceful solution with the Mohawks. Said de Chastelain: “This move is simply to relieve the Sûreté du Québec, to maintain an atmosphere of calm and to position ourselves to help once decisions have been made to resolve the dispute.”

But the SQ’s humiliating retreat seemed likely to do lasting damage to its already tar-

nished reputation. Said Jean-Paul Brodeur, a criminologist at the University of Montreal: “They have blown away a tradition of professionalism that they have been trying to build for a long time.”

Indeed, the SQ’s relations with civilians have long been uneasy. Many Quebecers recall the SQ’s reputation in the 1940s and 1950s as a sometimes harsh organization that was widely considered to be under the personal control of then-Premier Maurice Duplessis. Older Que-

becers, in particular, still revile the force for its role in the violent, Duplessis-ordered breakup of a picket line set up by striking asbestos workers in 1949. Although the force reorganized itself in the 1960s with the assistance of two former RCMP administrators, its public image remains fragile.

Even before the current crisis, the force’s record in dealing with native people was controversial. In one 1981 incident, officers attacked unarmed Micmacs demonstrating in

support of their claims to fishing rights on the Restigouche River in the Gaspé region. And in 1979, SQ patrolmen shot Kahnawake Mohawk David Cross to death after he drove at higk speed across the Mercier Bridge to his home on the reserve. Since that incident, thè Kahnawake band has insisted that the SQ not patrol on any of the reserve’s roads. SaiS Richard White, a Kahnawake band couqçi! chief: “People were really riled up. It was so unnecessary. We told them to keep off our reserve.” Relations between the Mohawks and the SQ have deteriorated since July 11, the daf an SQ corporal was killed during the force’s abortive attempt to dismantle the Kanesatakt band’s barricade at Oka. As Quebec, federal government and Mohawk negotiators tried Iasi week to reach an agreement to lift the blockades, the lingering bitterness was one of the obstacles to a settlement.

At the same time, the SQ was at violent odds with its newest adversaries—suburban commuters from the Châteauguay area. Y\foiî Poitras, 47, a former SQ member and leader of a civilian group pn> testing the shutdown of the Mercier Bridge, said that SQ riot officers clubbed and choked hiqj during demonstrations at nearby St-Louis-de-Gonzague. Said P«i tras, who served for 23 years with the force: “I used to be proud of the SQ. Now, they will have to rebuild their image completely. If is broken.”

In fact, residents of Châteauguay had for several weeks urgqd the government to replace police with troops. When SQ leaders, threatened to withdraw members from the area unless their rank and. file were allowed more discretion to use force against demonstra1-' tors, the army was left to pick up the pieces. In all, it will deploy a? Châteauguay 700 troops of the 5^ Canadian Mechanized Brigade from the Canadian Forces base & Valcartier, Que. A further 700 will go to Oka. The Châteauguay con* tingent will start removing SQ barricades on Monday, replacin'! ^ them with barbed wire and trençh-

0 es. Army liaison officers will keep*

1 residents informed. Said Lt.-Gen, u Kent Foster: “Our soldiers are

under orders not to fire unless, fired upon.”

The troops’ presence, with their armorea cars, may relieve some Châteauguay residents—and provide a welcome respite to tffe* tired officers of the SQ. But it is unlikely to dispel a bitter residue of distrust and anger that seems certain to outlast any settlement of thq, current crisis—both among the Sûreté du Québec and the citizens whose security the force is designed to protect.

DAN BURKE in Châteauguay