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Opinion: Montreal Police Harass and Threaten Bar Owners

An op-ed by the president of l'Association québécoise de la vie nocturne.

Cops, not criminals, are the problem
Cops, not criminals, are the problem

Sandy White, a former club owner, founded the non-profit l'Association québécoise de la vie nocturne (a.k.a. Quebec Nightlife Association) a few years ago to help bridge what he defines as 'the disconnect' between industry operators, bureaucrats and law enforcement.

In his capacity as lobbyist and representative, White has some grievances with–and suggestions for–city officials. La Presse published a letter from White yesterday.

Here, unedited, the full English version of the op-ed.

Misplaced Climate of Fear in the Nightlife Industry

In the December 9th edition of La Presse, an article related the testimony of a police officer during a hearing at the Régie des alcools over the revocation of the liquor license of the popular nightclub Muzique, in the Plateau Mont-Royal.

The officer described bar owners living in a "climate of fear" from threats of violence, fire-bombings, general intimidation and gross incivilities from gang members visiting their establishments.

Without commenting on a case which is still in progress, I would like to offer several points on behalf of the group which I represent, the Quebec Nightlife Association.

The number of problems associated with the nightlife industry are declining, much like the general trend towards lower crime rates across Montreal (all crimes fell by nearly 11% in 2013 according to the SPVM’s annual report).

While there are undeniably problems caused by the nightlife industry, the majority of the businesses that comprise this vital and neglected sector are harmless. Of the supposed "bad-apples", many are doing their best to address their problems and working hand-in-hand with residents, police and the city where possible- but unfortunately it is not a two-way street.

In recent years there has been an attitudinal shift as police forces are seemingly unable prosecute and jail known criminals. In concluding that many of the gang members they seek to arrest visit certain bars, police have passed the buck onto bars owners to act as a self-regulating force to deny entry to criminals- as though this will somehow help the police make their arrests.

However, the police generally refuse to identify who is and who isn’t a criminal, placing the onus on the businesses to decide for themselves. If bars do not comply with the ill-considered and vague demands from police, they are harassed and threatened with having their liquor permits revoked.

For the businesses that, often unknowingly, host these criminals, it is common to see 10 or more flack-jacketed police officers swarm in pointing flashlights in client’s faces, knocking over chairs and indiscriminately being rude to patrons while searching for gang members. Yet even once the undesirable person is found, there is nothing police can do about it if that client is doing nothing wrong. The gangsters drink their champagne and laugh at police and the police then revert to the bar owners and accuse them of being friendly with the gangsters.

It begs the question of why the person targeted is allowed to operate with such impunity if he is a criminal and, more importantly, why is he not in jail?

Beyond that, a better approach, perhaps, would be to have undercover police officers subtly observing suspected criminals rather than the clown-panted tactical unit putting on a light show in the middle of a nightclub which disturbs regular patrons and the operations of the business.

The association I administer, which represents most of the largest nightlife establishments in Montreal in their relations with the government, has repeatedly approached the city of Montreal to meet to address these issues, all to no avail.

Proposals such as hiring police officers to help serve as doormen at certain bars to deny entry to criminals would be welcomed by our industry and would go a long way towards solving the issues which frustrate police. The SPVM, however, has rejected this idea even though it is successfully employed in numerous cities.

We are now going a step further and will be proposing that the National Assembly pass legislation denying convicted drug dealers and gang members entry into licensed establishments so that bar owners can make peace with the SPVM.

Interestingly, among the members in our Association, many of which are in the Plateau, one of the most common concerns raised is not how to deal with intimidation from street gangs- I have not once heard this mentioned in 3 years- rather it is how to deal with intimidation from the police and utter disinterest from the city.

We continue to extend our hand in partnership and remain hopeful that this will one day change.

Sandy White
l'Association québécoise de la vie nocturne