A series of murders in the 1990s changed Montreal's queer community forever
The new season of CBC podcast The Village investigates a dark and transformative chapter in the city's history
Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens.
There are many stories from Canadian LGBTQ history that not enough people are aware of — but few are as chilling as the ones at the centre of CBC's acclaimed podcast The Village.
After two seasons focused on horrifying elements of Toronto's history (the Bruce McArthur murders and the homicides of Cassandra Do and Alloura Wells, respectively), the third season heads east to Montreal to investigate a string of violent murders that took place in the city's queer community in the 1990s.
Subtitled "The Montreal Murders," the season is hosted by award-winning journalist Francis Plourde (the two Toronto seasons were hosted by journalist Justin Ling). Though a historical examination, Plourde explores how the murders — which took place at the height of the initial AIDS crisis — led to a rise in activism and ultimately led to positive change, albeit through very tragic circumstances.
We talked to Plourde about his work on the podcast, whose season finale was released today.
This new season of The Village looks at the AIDS crisis and a series of violent murders that happened in Montreal in the early 1990s. When did you first uncover this narrative yourself, and why did you decide to pursue it as a podcast?
Francis Plourde: When Justin Ling worked on Season 1 of The Village (which focused on a series of cold cases reopened following the arrest of serial killer Bruce McArthur in Toronto), he interviewed Michael Hendricks, a longtime activist who, in the 1990s, had successfully worked with the Montreal police so they would improve the way they investigate gay murders. We thought there might be potential for an interesting story.
As I started looking into it, I realized that the story was more complex than it seemed. What happened in Montreal in the early 1990s was truly a set of circumstances (the peak of the AIDS crisis, a rise in violence against gays and lesbians, homophobic police brutality, etc.) that led a group of activists to rise up and successfully fight for their rights. That story hadn't been told in its entirety, and since many of the activists were still alive and willing to share their memories of what happened, we felt that a podcast was the best way to tell this journey.
What were some of the things you uncovered during the process of researching the podcast that really surprised you?
Of course, we made a number of discoveries along the way when it comes to the investigations, motives, and the specifics of some murder cases we're looking at. But I think the bigger surprises — for someone like me, who was only a kid when those events happened — were more contextual.
It might sound naive, but I don't think I'd realized how profound the effect of the AIDS epidemic was on the gay community. Of course, I knew about what happened and how terrible those years were in terms of losses, but the scope of the stigma attached to it baffled me. How a slow path toward acceptance was halted when AIDS made its way into the public sphere. How an entire group of people were stigmatized because of prejudices associated with the disease, and how relatives would even shut loved ones out from their lives as a result.
And the hurt became clear as I started interviewing people. Interviewees realized how important it was to share their stories, but on the other hand, it was painful to revisit those memories. There's the other side of this as well — the AIDS crisis became a tipping point. It forced the community to unite and work towards full acceptance.
There's another element of surprise that was very Montreal-centric. A lot of the successes we saw during that period truly resulted from the joint efforts of Anglophone and Francophone activists. I mean, Quebec is a distinct society, and they sought a Québécois solution to their issues, with help from allies and progressive leaders. That's something beautiful that should also be celebrated.
In many ways, we've evolved very positively as a community since the 1990s, and yet, there is still so much homophobia and transphobia in our society, very much including institutions like the police. Where do you personally think we go from here as an LGBTQ community?
Oh boy, that's a good question. And I'm in a tough position to answer. As a journalist, I make observations, not prescriptions.
In a Canadian context (and that's an important caveat), I tend to see the glass half full. Things changed tremendously in 30 years, and equality — on paper at least — has been achieved. My partner is a school teacher, and the level of inclusivity he witnesses is truly remarkable. His students approach those topics openly; there's discussions about sexual orientation as well as gender identity and it's truly an inclusive environment. It bodes well for the future.
That said, I'm talking from the point of view of a white male living in a progressive city. When it comes to mental health, LGBTQ+ individuals are still way more likely than straight individuals to suffer from depression, attempt suicide, or report high levels of drug use. A study done recently in the US showed that LGBTQ+ employees earned less than the average workers and were more likely to be unemployed or part-time employed.
On trans rights, there's still a lack of understanding and a number of prejudices — provinces and most employers don't even pay for gender-affirming surgeries, to give you an example. If you're a person of colour and queer, you're still facing discrimination, even within the community.
So back to your point, there's still a range of issues, but they're more complex to solve. It's not as simple as, let's say, [the] fight for marriage equality. I think further discussions need to be rooted in data. Otherwise, it's only about perceptions. And discussions need to happen within the LGBTQ+ community, of course, but more importantly, they need to happen in the broader public sphere, and treated as the human rights issues of discrimination that they are. Otherwise, there's a risk that they will be treated as niche interest issues and dismissed. There's always a risk that you're preaching to the converted.
What do you think today's younger LGBTQ folks can learn from listening to your podcast and what you've uncovered?
For any queer folks under 50, it's an opportunity to learn a piece of history that isn't taught in school and directly relates to their lives now, in 2022. What happened in Montreal in the early 90s was a turning point in fighting police discrimination and on HIV/AIDS as well. And surprisingly enough, those battles paved the way for marriage equality in Canada. I hope listeners will be moved and will realize how far we've come as a society.
But more importantly, it's a universal story. Regardless of your sexual orientation or gender identity, it's about a group of people who sought equality and respect. There's lessons in there for society as a whole.
Listen to The Village: The Montreal Murders on CBC Podcasts or wherever you find your podcasts.