Dozens gathered for a vigil Wednesday evening in Repentigny, Que., where a 37-year-old Black man was shot dead by police Sunday morning after his family called 911 for help.
Many in the crowd wore T-shirts that read “Justice pour Junior.”
Jean-René Junior Olivier was shot three times in the stomach just a few houses down from his mother’s home on a residential street in the suburb north of Montreal.
The family says they called Repentigny police just after 7:30 a.m. Sunday and told authorities Olivier was confused, unstable and armed with a knife but had discarded the weapon before police shot him.
“It’s regrettable that the intervention of a man in a mental health crisis leads to his death,” said Pierre-Richard Thomas, president of non-profit Lakay Media, which organized Wednesday’s sit-in vigil in front of city hall.
“This is one more incident of police not properly responding to a mental health scenario and racially profiling a Black man.”
Police say they found the man outside and tried speaking to him but he fled on foot and allegedly became threatening toward officers. Police say they then attempted to use pepper spray on him to try and subdue him but it didn’t work, so they shot him multiple times in the stomach, which resulted in his death.
The case was transferred to Quebec’s police watchdog, the Bureau des enquêtes indépendantes (BEI), to investigate what happened.
Wednesday’s vigil began with speeches from family members followed by a powerful moment when attendees took a knee and raised their fists in the air before a moment of silence.
Thomas said the vigil was not only to honour Olivier’s memory and his family, but also to call for justice.
He told Global News he and other organizers want to see an apology from the police force to the family and the community it serves, that the officers involved face consequences once the police watchdog’s investigation is concluded, changes to policing and more mental health resources available in the diverse area.
Organizers presented a list of 11 demands outlining changes they would like to see in policing to bring an end to racial profiling. They called for better training for officers and more diversity within all levels of the justice system. They also want to see police equipped with body cameras.
For Dolmine Laguerre, Olivier’s cousin, Wednesday’s sit-in was also about creating awareness.
“We need everybody to feel that our skin colour is not a problem,” she said. “We want to be treated like white people because we feel like white people have more privilege than us.”
Thomas added that he also wants to see the suburb of Repentigny acknowledge that its police force has a racial profiling issue — which he says has been well-documented.
Repentigny police have been hit with four racial profiling complaints upheld by the Quebec Human Rights Commission in recent years.
The death has Olivier’s mother thinking twice about calling police in the future.
“If tomorrow I have another problem, will I call 911? Not at all, because I do not have confidence in the police,” Marie-Mireille Bence said.
Laguerre agreed there is a climate of fear.
“If I go out I don’t want to feel like, oh because I’m Black I will probably get arrested or get shot just because of my skin colour,” she said.
The situation isn’t unique to Quebec.
A 2018 report from the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) found that Black residents in Toronto are 20 times more likely to be killed by police than white people.
Black residents in Toronto only make up 8.8 per cent of the city’s population but account for 61 per cent of cases in which police used force that led to death and 70 per cent of all cases where a police shooting resulted in death.
Repentigny police officers were at the vigil, but remained discreet.
In a notice on Facebook late Wednesday afternoon, Repentigny police had warned that officers would be present to ensure the safety of participants and members of the public.
“Know that we are sensitive to the emotions that this tragedy arouses for the family, the population and for our police officers,” the notice reads in French. “We respect the rights and need of everyone to demonstrate and express their dissatisfaction and apprehension with our service.”
“Tonight, despite the difficult situation, it is important for us to remind you that our agents are not against the population, but will be there to support the Repentigny community.”
— With files from Global News’ Olivia O’Malley, Olivia Bowden