What's driving the recent spike in gun violence around Montreal?

Criminologists Maria Mourani and Marc Alain explain what’s behind the rise in shootings and how Quebec should address gang violence and organized crime long-term.

Experts weigh in on how Quebec should tackle gun trafficking, violent crime and gang culture

Police officers investigate a crime scene following a shooting leaving three people dead and two injured in the Rivière-des-Prairies neighbourhood of Montreal on Tuesday. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

It's been a particularly bloody summer in the Montreal region and with five people shot and killed since the beginning of August, the Quebec government and two of its major police forces have promised to work together and act quickly.

On Aug. 2, a shooting in Rivière-des-Praires left three men dead and two injured. A few days later, a 31-year-old Longueuil man was killed in a shooting on the South Shore.

The latest shooting took place on Sunday night. A 22-year-old man was fatally shot in the Villeray neighbourhood.

Most of the victims were known to police.

The death toll has led to government announcements and stern statements from the police along the lines of "enough is enough," but it has also raised questions about what is the best way to tackle the problem of gun violence.

Maria Mourani, a criminologist who has studied Montreal street gangs and written about organized crime in Quebec and around the world, says she's not surprised by the recent rise in gun violence.

Mourani says she started to notice an uptick in shootings last fall, but things have escalated in the last couple months.

"When we have shootings it means there are conflicts between different criminal groups," she said. "Fights over territory, over drugs, unpaid debts…sometimes it's just two people who disagree."

She says an ongoing war between rival gangs, the Profit Boys in Rivière-des-Prairies and Zone 43 from Montréal-Nord, is causing a lot of the bloodshed.

Social media accounts connected to rap artists who display the Profit Boys colours and slogans in their music videos, show several comments from people on both sides: some sending condolences to a rapper who was killed in last Monday's shooting, and others making light of his death and promising further violence. 

Maria Mourani is a criminologist who studies gang activities in Montreal. (Radio-Canada)

"What we're seeing is a conflict within the Bloods," she said. "But there are still some shootings happening with the Crips."

Mourani says in the '90s many Montreal street gangs teamed up with the Hells Angels and the Italian Mafia. A group known as the Syndicate was formed as a sort of buffer between local gangs and organized crime.

"When there was this alliance...Montreal was calm," she said. "[Since then] there have been several police operations that put several leaders inside [prison], whether it's the Syndicates, the Mafia or the Hell's, and some of them have been released."

Jockeying for position

On top of numerous shootings, there have a handful of firebombings at bars and restaurants and Mourani says she expects to see more violence.

"There's a certain instability," she said, "people are trying to leave their mark, who's dominant and who's not."

She says historically, gangs associated with the Crips have been more willing to collaborate with the Mafia and the bikers, while the Bloods gangs have tried to maintain independence — sometimes resulting in their leaders being targeted.

"All of this is happening at the same time," she said, "we can't give a single explanation for what's happening in Montreal. It's much more complex than it looks."

Another shooting in Longueuil, on Montreal's South Shore, left a 31-year-old man dead Thursday. He was known to police. (Simon-Marc Charron/Radio-Canada)

Still, Mourani says, open violence upsets the people at the top of the food chain. Right now, she says it's the Hell's Angels who are in charge.

"War isn't good for business, these guys from organized crime don't like it," she said.

"They know that if there's shootings the police are going to put way more pressure, politicians are going to come out, citizens will be scared and they'll find themselves in a situation similar to what happened during the biker war."

That biker-gang war in 1995 killed 150 people, mostly bikers. But when it escalated to the point where a small boy was killed when a car bomb detonated, a mixed police squad was formed and a crackdown sent dozens to jail.

Firearms too easy to get

Marc Alain, a professor at the Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières and a researcher with the Centre of International Comparative Criminology, says one of the biggest drivers of gun violence is how readily available handguns have become in Quebec and throughout Canada.

"There's more guns than citizens in the U.S. Our border is literally full of holes … getting access [to guns] has never been easier in Canada than it has in the last four years."

Alain says he's skeptical about SQ officers joining Montreal's gun squad because he says the SPVM has a better knowledge of its territory and the people involved in gangs and organized crime. He says the leadership roles of the officers need to be clearly defined in order for the partnership to work.

Professor and criminology researcher Marc Alain says guns have become too easily accessible in Canada. In Quebec, he says the key to tackling gun violence is a long-term prevention plan led by social workers, community leaders and community groups. (Submitted by Marc Alain)

He says the pandemic, lockdown and re-opening likely sparked some of the recent violent confrontations.

"Gang members have a tendency to be very proud of their territorial assets," he said. "Being confined isn't the best way to ensure that you know this piece of land is mine and you're not welcome here."

Community approach

Alain says the police response to gun violence is only one side of the coin and the SPVM needs to rebuild trust with the communities most often affected by shootings. 

"In Quebec we're very good at reacting quickly," he said, "we're not that good in prevention." 

Alain says prevention work takes time, something politicians might be hesitant to commit to. He says initiatives in Wales and cities like Chicago took as long as 15 years to show results but were ultimately effective in reducing violence.

"The guy who owns the gun … the guy who's on the other side of the gun, these are young adults that were toddlers a couple of years ago. When they become frustrated adults with … no possibility to get a proper education, to get a proper job … they are the best clientele for these gangs."

It's key to intervene at the earliest age possible, Alain says, and police can play a role.

"[The police] should visit the neighbourhood and pair themselves with known leaders from community-based organizations," he said, "and literally go from one door to the other … open themselves to what people have to say."

"This remains the best way to do what we call community policing."

With files from Shuyee Lee