Student hero of Dawson College shooting hopes to become a police officer

Ten years later, James Santos reflects on his memories of the Dawson shooting. Now, he's about to start classes at Quebec's police academy.

Surviving the 2006 shooting showed James Santos that nothing can be taken for granted

James Santos was used by gunman Kimveer Gill as a human shield against police during the Dawson College shooting in 2006. (Shari Okeke)

Ten years ago, 17-year-old Dawson College student James Santos was sure he was going to die when a gunman used him as a human shield while firing at Montreal police in his school's cafeteria. 

Santos had been talking to his friend Anastasia De Sousa when the shooting started. He dove for cover and she collapsed. He thought she had fainted, but she'd been shot.

"I tried to console her," he told CBC News in a recent interview. "I tried to do my best at that time. I didn't know much."

Montreal police managed to respond quickly to the Sept. 13 shooting and entered the building as gunman Kimveer Gill was still roaming the school. 

Seeing Santos, Gill used him to protect himself from police. That's when Santos tried to reason with him. 

'You don't need to be doing this,' he told the shooter

Gov. Gen. Michaëlle Jean presents James Santos (far left) with the Star of Courage in 2008 for helping subdue Gill. (Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press)

"I said, 'You don't need to be doing this … there are other ways … I can help you,'" Santos recalls telling Gill. 

At one point the shooter asked Santos how De Sousa was doing. Santos thought it was a trick question so he calmly asked if he could check on his friend.

That's when the shooter walked over to De Sousa.

"He didn't say anything. He went back, he unloaded his semi-automatic [weapon] on her and told me, 'Now you have nothing to worry about,'" Santos said.

"I didn't want to show him any emotion … so I didn't say anything," he said. Santos learned later that De Sousa had died from the first shot and not the subsequent ones.

Live or die

Students take cover behind a car at Dawson College in the minutes after Kimveer Gill opened fire inside the CEGEP's main building. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

Santos isn't sure what made him react so calmly the day of the shooting. But he does remember one moment when he couldn't hide his anger.

The shooter was pointing his gun at another student's face, asking him if he was "willing to live or die."

"I told him angrily, 'Listen, stop. He didn't do anything to you. Leave the kid alone,'" Santos said.

Gill then forced that student to become a shield along with Santos and the two students wound up carrying his bags. 

They only took a few steps before Gill fell to the floor.

"I realized he got shot [by Montreal police] but he was still alive," Santos said. 

"So I thought, 'Great, now he's angry. He's going to shoot me and he's going to shoot the other student.'" 

Gill shot himself instead. 

In 2008, Gov. Gen. Michaëlle Jean awarded Santos with the Star of Courage for his actions distracting Gill and trying to convince him to surrender.

Difficult aftermath

Students grieve at a makeshift memorial in front of Dawson College two days after the shooting. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

Santos is calm as he retells the story of how his day unfolded 10 years ago. But it wasn't always easy for him to think about what happened in the Dawson cafeteria. 

He said it used to be traumatic to talk about because it felt like he was reliving that day.

Once, while watching a movie with an unexpected scene of violence, Santos felt his palms grow sweaty and his fingers turn numb.

He went through a period of distancing himself from close friends and family. His grades suffered and his career aspirations dimmed. 

But after seeking counselling, Santos learned that talking about the events of Sept. 13 could help him heal.

And what he witnessed that day motivated him to pursue a career he'd thought about since childhood: policing. 

"I saw Montreal police — how professional they were and how fast they would react, how well they reacted," Santos said.

"All that just kind of gave me a boost.… That's what I want to be." 

2nd chance at life

A young James Santos speaks in 2006 during an interview with CBC News. (CBC)

Santos recently graduated from John Abbott College's police technology program. He's now preparing to start classes at the police academy in Nicolet, Que.

His career path has taken longer, perhaps, than he would have liked. But at 27 he feels he's just taken a big step closer to fulfilling his childhood goal.

"Hopefully — maybe in the next year — I'll be a police officer in Montreal. That's my dream job," Santos said.

For Santos, surviving that shooting 10 years ago was a second chance at life. His philosophy now is to take nothing for granted. He travels, plays sports and loves meeting different people.    

"I have that sense of — you don't know when your time is [up]" he said. "You have one life. Just enjoy it."

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About the Author

Shari Okeke is writer/broadcaster for Daybreak on CBC Radio, and creator of Mic Drop, an award-winning CBC original podcast.