Opaque policing: Two deaths, other attacks loom as Asian Montrealers fear unrecognized hate crimes
MONTREAL -- A week ago, a Korean Montrealer named Nicolas was walking home from work when a stranger sprayed him with a gluey, burning substance, leaving him temporarily blinded and crawling on the sidewalk for help.
On Monday, police told media they weren’t considering it a potential hate crime.
On Tuesday, they changed their minds, bringing in the hate crimes squad.
What changed overnight?
Not much, by police’s account—they simply decided to act on Nicolas’s belief he was singled out for being Asian.
“The investigation, of course, evolved,” said a Montreal police spokesperson on Tuesday.
But she went on to say that the move was sparked by Nicolas’s original interview.
“The victim himself is of Asian origin, and he thinks that it may be a hate crime considering his origin, and that’s why the hate crime investigators will consider this possibility,” she said.
They didn’t inform Nicolas of the change. He says he thinks it came about only after media attention around his attack on Monday.
The short saga illustrates the mysteries around how and when Montreal-area police decide to treat crimes as potential hate crimes, a murky area that came under the spotlight this week with new pressure to revamp the city police force's approach, including a new motion before City Council that the mayor said she’s considering.
The frustrations are growing quickly, particulary for Asian Montrealers. After six Asian-American women died this week in a targeted mass shooting in Atlanta, Georgia, a rally is planned for this Sunday in Montreal.
It’s not just Atlanta: in a year of skyrocketing attacks on Asians, Montreal has its own serious incidents that many believe are hate crimes, but unresolved ones, including the deaths of two people in a double hit-and-run last September.
For Nicolas, the pepper-spray-type attack last Thursday was much worse than anything the 34-year-old has experienced in a lifetime living in Montreal, but it follows anecdotes he’s heard since the pandemic began, including someone getting spat on in the metro.
AN ATTACK OUT OF THIN AIR
Nicolas, who didn’t want his last name published since he fears it would help the attacker find him, was walking home from work on Marie-Anne St. at about 4:30, turning onto Coloniale Ave., when a group of young people came up behind him.
He was listening to a podcast and didn’t pay them attention. If they spoke, he didn’t hear what they said.
“Some guy pops up from behind me and sprays with me with this thick, gooey, red, pepper stuff,” he said.
It was the texture of Elmer glue and stuck to his skin and eyelids, covering his jacket hood and shirt, burning painfully when he tried to open his eyes or rub it away. He’s since learned that similar gels are used by the military or as a certain kind of bear spray.
“I fell to the ground,” he said. He couldn’t see well enough to use his phone but knew there was a daycare nearby and began crawling toward it.
He desperately pulled off his soaked jacket and shirt and then “knocked on the window, terrified a bunch of kids,” he said. “I remember opening my eyes for like a split second and seeing all the faces.”
A worker there brought him water and milk to try to soothe his eyes, and he called the police using his Apple watch.
He had no idea if there was permanent damage being done.
“I've never even seen pepper spray before, let alone been felt the effects of it,” he said. “So I'm not sure if this is like some crazy acid attack or whatever, because it's burning… it was scary.”
Police say they’ve made no arrests and have no suspects’ descriptions to disseminate, and have no other updates to report.
Nicolas described the attackers as a group of young people, about age 16 to 24, who were Black and otherwise had no notable characteristics.
When officers brought him to his apartment on the Plateau to wash the gel off his face, he told them right away he believed it was a hate crime.
“I'm certain it is, and I let them know,” he told CTV.
He’s convinced partly because the group made no effort to rob him, he said.
At the time, he was carrying “the latest iPhone, the latest Apple watch, the latest iPad and MacBook Pro,” he said. “They could have gotten some sweet stuff if they wanted.”
He would have preferred it to be a mugging or robbery, he said.
Instead, the attack left deeper marks on him and many around him.
“The idea of going outside is terrifying,” he said four days later, on Monday. “I'm looking behind me. I'm looking around. I'm making sure no one sees me walk into my apartment.”
His girlfriend “felt compelled to tell every Asian person on that block” what had happened, to warn them to be on guard.
MONTHS OF FEAR AFTER TWO DEATHS ON SOUTH SHORE
The same pattern played out on a big scale in the South Shore in early September.
One evening around 6:15 in Brossard, a car plowed into a male cyclist, and then, on a different street, a female pedestrian, killing both.
Both victims were Asian. It was broad daylight, but police insisted their investigation proved the two weren’t targeted because of their race—and declined to explain why.
A 30-year-old man, Radoslav Guentchev, was arrested and charged. His preliminary hearing is set for this spring.
Even after his arrest, however, East Asian people in the South Shore were reeling, constantly messaging her to get updates on the investigation, said Xixi Li, director of Chinese Family Services of Greater Montreal, a major nonprofit with two offices in the city.
“Everyone feels like... they’re nervous,” said Li this week.
It was the same at her house. “Even my husband said… ‘After supper, don’t go out. It’s so dangerous. You should stay at home -- people are going to hit you, too,’” she said.
Police seemed to write off the idea very quickly, she said.
“Right after the suspect was captured in Brossard, [police] said ‘We did our investigation and it's not a hate crime,’” she said.
“But the community members keep asking me why,” she said. “Usually, they take a long time to do the investigation. How come in just two or three weeks they said ‘Oh, it's not a hate crime?’… We don’t know how to explain to our community.”
When pressed by media at the time, Longueuil police said that the accused wasn’t impaired and that he had no connection with his victims, picking them “at random.” They insisted they didn’t have grounds to bring hate crime charges but that they couldn’t explain why in more detail.
When asked again this week, police again said they can’t provide any more details of their reasoning, saying the case is before the courts. But they seemed to say that because the victims were chosen on the spot, they couldn’t be considered targeted.
“The [Longueuil police force] is able to confirm, at the end of the investigation, that the victims were not chosen in advance in this case,” said a statement the force sent CTV.
“Although the two victims are of Asian origin, this has nothing to do with the tragic maneuvers committed by the suspect.”
They also referred questions to Crown prosecution office handling the court case. A spokeswoman from the Crown office said she can’t go into detail about the case while it’s pending.
“The analysis of the evidence submitted by the police force allowed the prosecution to lay these charges, in light of the guidelines and principles of law that govern us,” wrote Audrey Roy-Cloutier.
A little more information came out in January, when Guentchev’s preliminary hearing dates were set in court.
According to a police report from September, media reported, Guentchev had deliberately turned off his lights before making what police called his "random" choices of victim.
However, even if he didn’t have headlights on, the attacks happened at about 6:15 or 6:30 in the evening on a day when the sun didn't set until around 7:20.
Guentchev’s lawyer, provided by legal aid, couldn’t be reached for comment.
One victim was Huiping Ding, age 45, who Li has said was a well-known hairdresser. The other was Gérard Chong Soon Yuen, age 50. Ding was Chinese, while Yuen was Korean.
TURNED DOWN AS HOMEBUYERS, REJECTED AT SCHOOL
People are at a breaking point after an incredibly upsetting year full of all kinds of attacks, said Li—some the kind you might report to police, and some not.
“On the street, when Chinese people come, they say ‘Oh, the virus is coming,” she said. That’s one of the most common incidents she hears about.
Businesses in Chinatown were vandalized and some broken into. Asian families trying to buy homes in Montreal found their high offers suddenly turned down.
One woman she knows, who had paid $50,000 to lease a sushi counter inside a major grocery store, wore a mask to work one day before masks were mandated in Quebec, and the landlord, saying “people will think that you’re sick,” banned her from coming into work at her own shop, Li said.
She’s also heard of cases of kids rejected by friends at school who “said, ‘Oh, I don't want to be your friend anymore, because you bring the virus,’ something like that. It’s really sad,” she said.
“We feel like, really, we’re not welcome here.”
HATE CRIMES UNIT HAS FOUR OFFICERS, MANY LANGUAGE BARRIERS
Officially, hate crimes against Asian Montrealers were way up in 2020, with 19 more than the previous year.
But Li said the vast majority even of relatively obvious cases aren’t reported officially. Even with incidents in Chinatown, business owners quickly gave up.
“In the end the police said ‘Oh, there's no report about violence in Chinatown,’ but I think the [business] owner didn't speak the language and they don't know how to do [it] and they talked to us instead—‘When I reported, nothing happened.’”
None of the officers on the hate crimes unit speaks Mandarin or Cantonese, she noted, while a huge proportion of Asian Montrealers are first-generation immigrants who don’t speak perfect French or English.
There’s an organized push to change that this week, with 40 organizations calling on the city to ensure Montreal police revamp its hate crimes unit, making it more multicultural and bigger.
The current unit has just four officers, all white. The model doesn’t work, said a press release Tuesday from the Centre for Research-Action on Race Relations or CRARR, a Montreal organization that often works with victims of hate crimes.
In reviewing 15 of those cases over the last three years, it found “a general lack of adequate information, empathy and response from the police and prosecutors,” CRARR director Fo Niemi wrote.
“There is a perception of reluctance on the part of the police and prosecutors to prosecute a case as a hate-motivated case.”
SPVM hasn't yet responded to a request for comment on the issue.
Coun. Marvin Rotrand is tabling a motion in City Council calling for changes, and Mayor Valerie Plante said Thursday she’s looking at it.
“For us the intention, the political will is in this direction,” said Plante. “But at this point, as they say in French, le diable est dans le detail… I will look into the motion.”
Putting together such a big coalition, 40 groups, was a sadly obvious choice in this case, said one of them.
“Asian communities, no matter the origin, have shared many of the same incidents,” said Minda Massone of the Federation of Filipino Canadian Associations of Quebec.
“Some have been insulted, refused services,” she said. “We’ve witnessed vandalism against temples, and there've been too many stories of persons pushed, punched, or worse.”
Among their requests, the coalition want police to keep better race-based data, a constant and long-term request that’s been made several times over the last year.
'WE NEED TO BE VISIBLE'
Not everyone is putting hope in City Council or in police reform, however.
Me May Chiu is organizing the march planned for Sunday, saying people need to join up in person and take a stand in a province “where the government denies systemic racism,” she said.
“After a year of protesting [and] sharing our stories, and seeing the anti-Asian [crime] does not seem to be subsiding, we decided enough is enough and we need to take to the streets, be visible and vocal, and demand action.”
Li said that some people in her community, especially those most recently arrived from China, aren’t always comfortable speaking up when they “suffer.”
Inspired by all this, Li’s organization also took action this year, holding two sets of workshops this fall and winter: one meant for Asian Montrealers, to teach them to spot and handle discrimination, and an anti-racism workshop attended by about 50 people, about half non-Asian, she said.
But government help is also important, in taking down language and employment barriers, she said, and simply changing the conversation.
“I think that the government should let [society] know… what was the contribution of the Chinese community,” she said.
It’s the fifth biggest cultural community in Quebec, with a population of 100,000, and it’s famously hard-working and resourceful, Li said, despite decades of insidious and outright barriers, like the historical ban on Chinese immigration.
“If it [wasn’t] for the Chinese people who came here to build the railway, there’s no Canada,” said Li.
“Chinatown not only belongs to the Chinese community, but belongs to all the citizens of Montreal.”
--With files from CTV's Iman Kassam.