Young adults reflect on Fredy Villanueva's shooting death

As much as any other event in Montreal’s history, Villanueva's death put a face to a neighbourhood. These are the stories of two young women from Montreal North, both about the same age as Villanueva when he died, and how the shooting shaped the people they have become.

They were around the same age as Villanueva when he died, and his death shaped who they have become

The killing of Fredy Villanueva 10 years ago spurred Alejandra Zaga Mendez, 30, toward a life of political activism. (Elias Abboud/CBC)

The death of Fredy Villanueva ten years ago, as much as any other event in Montreal's history, put a face to a neighbourhood.

He died 10 years ago this week after being shot twice in an altercation with a police officer in the parking lot behind an arena in Montreal North.

The death touched off violent rioting in the community. It sparked countless stories of racial profiling on the part of Montreal police, and feelings of marginalization.

It also sparked people in one of Montreal's least affluent, and more multicultural communities toward activism.

These are the stories of two young women from Montreal North, both about the same age as Villanueva when he died, and how the shooting shaped the people they have become.

Alejandra Zaga Mendez, 30, is a researcher in sustainable development and environmental policy working toward her PhD at Université du Québec en Outaouais, and a candidate for Québec solidaire in the Bourassa-Sauvé riding.

Gabriella Kinté, 28, is the owner of Librairie Racines, specializing in books and art by people of colour. 

These interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.

On the shooting and riot

Gabriella Kinté, 28, says many people her age who live in Montreal North still haven't healed from the death of Fredy Villanueva. (Elias Abboud/CBC)

G.K.: When Fredy Villanueva died he was 18, I was also 18, and I remember being very sad and very angry. I could have been in that park and it could have been my little brothers, and I knew people who were there, and it shouldn't happen, period.

A.Z.M.: I remember 10 years ago when the killing of Fredy happened, it was a collective feeling of not knowing what was going on, and trying to understand why Fredy was killed and the circumstances of the death. So I think it was a collective feeling of void that we needed to understand and also to take power over it.

G.K.: My friends were [at the riots] at the time but I wasn't. I was in front of my TV and I was listening to what people were saying and I was cheering for them because I, myself, felt the anger that the protesters were feeling. To be living that way on a daily basis, of course something was going to explode and you're going to want to ask for justice. With my family, we all felt like Fredy didn't deserve to die. Not everyone agrees with the riot but everyone agrees that nobody deserves to die in those circumstances.

A.Z.M.: One of the first things I thought was [Fredy] could have been my brother. What was the difference between him and my brother and the other kids that we know? They were hanging out in a park, didn't have any police records, and they were not armed. It was a feeling that this could happen to somebody else and it's an injustice, and we need to fight and we need to overcome this.

The impact of Fredy Villanueva's death

G.K.: What happened to Fredy Villanueva had a big impact in my life. Now I'm 28 years old, I'm a mom, I'm a wife, I've done amazing things and Fredy will never have that chance. He could have been a father, an amazing father. He could have done amazing things in Montreal.

A.Z.M.: I grew up a few blocks from [where Fredy was shot]. This happened in a place we used to go out every day after school. So what makes the difference between Fredy and other youth of the neighbourhood? For me, that feeling of injustice is what motivated a lot of our political action and our activism here, with Hoodstock and Montréal-Nord Republik, and eventually for me, with Québec solidaire.

Every year, family and supporters gather at this tree to commemorate the death of Fredy Villanueva. The tree is just steps from where he died. (CBC)

G.K.: When Fredy Villanueva died, it inspired a lot of people from my generation to stand up for what they believe in. And what I believe in, is no police brutality, justice for all. It also made me want to express myself because I felt a lot of anger. As I'm always saying, we have to choose ways to express, and I chose to start writing. This is the time where I chose to write what I was feeling, my anger. I started writing little poems.

A.Z.M.: I never felt so engaged with a fight [as I did with] the Fredy Villanueva case and Hoodstock became a main part of my activism for years. I can say there was a "before and after" Fredy Villanueva in Montreal North. There was a "before and after" Fredy Villanueva in my life.

Ten years later

G.K.: A lot of people don't relate to that story. But I think that we're all part of the same community, what happened in Montreal North. Montreal North is not another island, it's the same Montreal island. What happened in Montreal North to some young men, even those young men of colour, it's a matter for everyone. It shouldn't happen to [anybody], and I think that people should start to relate more to our youth, no matter what the nationality.

The dozens of old and rusted staples in the tree trunk are a testament to the number of photos and posters remembering Fredy that have been attached to the tree over the years. (Elias Abboud/CBC)

A.Z.M.: We have to acknowledge there have been a lot of different interventions from community groups, and also from police, having a better community approach. However, the economic and social conditions haven't changed. It's OK to have new tools and new services… but as long as the root of the problem, which is the economic and social conditions, do not change, there's not much more that the community groups can do

G.K.: Ten years later, what I would like to see in the community is people sitting at the same table. I'm talking about the mother of Fredy Villanueva, the mayor, Christine Black, the police, the young people in the community. Everybody needs to sit at the same table and listen to each other and take recommendations from each other.

A.Z.M.: What's important for the next generation is that we tell the story in relation to Fredy, and the family gets the chance to tell their story as well. To remember is to acknowledge, and to prevent [this from happening]. I hope there's not another Fredy. It's important to know that this happened here and we need to be organized and aware so this never happens again.