Before he died last year, my father and I had been talking about his years working at Dominion Bridge, the engineering and construction giant headquartered at the southwestern end of Montreal. He remembered he had a secretary who was from the Kahnawake reserve across the Saint Lawrence. Occasionally there’d be some kind of trouble or unrest with some of the Mohawk tribe members. Whenever that would happen she’d say, “Oh that’s just the Warriors”.
Many of those Mohawks worked construction, they were particularly skilled steel workers. My dad remembered one guy who was a foreman on jobs. They used to travel together to projects, particularly in the north around Sept-Îles. My dad would show up at the gate – in those days Wardair was at the back, in the northeast corner of Dorval Airport – and there’d be this foreman with his canoe. It would be that way with most out-of-town jobs, the canoe would travel everywhere with this Mohawk foreman. They’d load the canoe in the hull of the plane, and off they’d go.
I’ll begin with mention of something in the news this week – and, no, it’s not the body found in a suitcase, that’s not my style, though that does appear to be happening a lot lately in Juarez – the city formerly known as Toronto. It’s about the retirement this week of the suspended head of the Surete du Quebec, Martin Prud’homme. Recall that in 2018 Prud’homme testified at the Viens inquiry how he “didn’t have any information or details that led [him] to think there was a major problem in Val-d’Or” Quebec. When asked if he’d heard about how SQ officers had taken intoxicated Indigenous people on “starlight tours” Prud’homme responded that he had never heard of such a practice before.
Prud’homme was removed as director of the Sûreté du Québec in 2019 for committing a possible ethical breach related to leaks of information. His confidentiality agreement with the Quebec government allowed him to retire without making any comments. The Quebec Government was quick to double-stitch the silence by withdrawing “the request addressed to the Public Service Commission to hold an investigation and report on Mr. Martin Prud’homme Director General of the SQ .”, and thus the whole matter of possible police corruption was quietly swept sous le tapis. Fin
There are two stories I’ve been reluctant to tell of Quebec injustice. One concerns the 1989 mass murder of 14 women at the École Polytechnique de Montréal. The second is the 1990 Kanesatake Resistance, also known as the Oka Crisis. Both incidents have seen plenty of coverage, there’s volumes of work written about them. In the case of Oka, I can’t see doing a better job telling that story than what the filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin achieves in her many documentaries on the affair. And anyway, you can’t tell the story of Oka without first understanding what happened to David Cross.
This is an old story – another kick in the ribs brought to you courtesy of the Quebec Police Force. It’s going to feel very familiar and contemporary to you. It’s got all your favorite players – Jean-Claude Bernheim, that crazy-cat, Frank Shoofey, the justice minister, Marc Andre Bedard. Cops and car chases…
Early Saturday evening, October 20, 1979, 28-year-old David Cross was shot dead outside his home on the Caughnawaga (Kahnawake) Reserve on the South Shore of the St. Lawrence River near Montreal.
Cross had been the subject of a high-speed police chase by the Surete du Quebec, in those days called the Quebec Police Force. According to the QPF, the police cruiser and Cross’s vehicle collided several times during the pursuit through the streets of Montreal. The chase continued across the Mercier Bridge, then onto the First Nations Reserve near Sainte Catherine, Quebec. Cross abandoned the vehicle at his home then disappeared into his house. Police constable Gervais Ouellet next handcuffed Cross’s brother, Matthew who was riding along side of him, and put him in the back of the police cruiser. Police spokesmen, Constable Robert Brunet told the public that as the cruiser was pulling out of the drive, David Cross then emerged from the home carrying a “big, black object” which others said was the end of a broomstick or pool cue. According to Lessard, Cross proceeded to smash the front windshield of the police cruiser. When Cross attempted to open the driver’s door of the cruiser, constable Robert Lessard who was seated at the wheel, opened the door, remained seated and shot David Cross three times. Several children and relatives stood by and witnessed the event.
A woman reported to have been Matthew Cross’ wife had tried to intervene. She too emerged from the house and asked the Quebec Police to leave, instructing them to contact the reserve’s own police, a 10-member force paid for by residents of the reserve known as the Peacekeepers. The Quebec police ignored her pleas, shot David Cross dead, leaving his widow and two young sons, “horribly upset by her husband’s death.”
“This is what I can’t understand. Why two six-footers, supposedly highly-trained officers who went through Nicolet ( police academy), didn’t get out of their car to apprehend one guy armed with a broomstick. If they had only waited for the peacemakers, none of this would have happened.”Paul Deer – Peacekeepers chief of police
The 5,000- member reserve called a band council meeting, immediately deciding to attempt to have murder charges brought “against the person or persons responsible for the brutal killing.” Chief Andrew Delisle emerged from the meeting stating, “We don’t want any more provincial police on our reserve… the QPF doesn’t understand our people.” Delisle said the council would hold its own inquiry, but also called for the Quebec justice department to hold an immediate investigation into the shooting, adding that Cross’s death was the result of “bungling by the provincial and federal governments.” For years residents of Kahnawake had been demanding that the federal government pay for an organized, reserve-run force. The Canadian federal government would only agree if such a force was recognized by the province of Quebec, and Quebec would only agree if Quebec controlled it. The stalemate had lingered well past memory.
“We’re going to move on our own because we have no confidence that anybody will do anything for us anymore.”
“Any QPF officer we find on our land will be asked to leave. If the Officer doesn’t leave the reserve he will be arrested, charged with trespassing and detained – for his own protection.”Chief Andrew Delisle
Police alleged David Cross had been speeding. But the QPF had a track record of running down members of the reserve and roughing them up. In an incident over the summer, police chased an Indian onto the Mercier Bridge, shot at him five times, before handcuffing him and his friends to the bridge. Cross had claimed he had been beaten several times by Quebec police. When they decided to chase you, the natural instinct was to run.
By mid-week Premier Rene Levesque ordered a coroner’s inquest into the matter, but stopped short of the requested inquiry into QPF-Indian relations saying Cross’s death was an isolated incident and did not reflect “generally peaceful relations with Indians in Quebec” ( First Nations would have to wait another 40 years for a full inquiry, and even today we are waiting for the government to make good on the recommendations of both the Truth and Reconciliation and Viens inquiries). Matters weren’t helped when on the morning of Tuesday, October 23, three women from the reserve were arrested for beating two Montreal taxi cab drivers with a crowbar and a baseball bat, setting one of their cabs on fire. The other cab was stolen, and driven across the Mercier Bridge into Kahnawake, apparently in an attempt to lure the QPF onto the reserve to exact revenge. Instead they engaged the Montreal police force, who chased the taxi cab for three miles across reserve dirt roads. When they reached a dead end, the police cruiser was blocked by a car with Michigan state license plates. A man emerged from the vehicle with a rifle who police mistook for a Peacekeeper until he told the officers, “You better fuck off or we will kill you!” Paul Deer, police chief of the reserve’s Peacemakers said of the incident, “there may be a tie-in” because of tensions. In response, the QPF ordered its officers not to enter the reserve under any circumstance.
On Wednesday, October 24, Mohawks buried 28-year-old David Cross in the rain in the reserve’s cemetery. 1,000 mourners attended the funeral where Cross was given ancient final rights by the band’s tribal chief, Joseph Phillips, Cross’s widow and two young boys standing graveside. Cross was eulogized for being a great hunter and high-steel worker. He was accustomed to traveling to the United States to do structural steel work. Often his wife, Linda would accompany him on these trips.
For years Mohawk members had complained about service calls by the RCMP and QPF to the reserve. According to Chief Andrew Delisle, “They were just too slow, we’d call them about something and they’d arrive a couple of hours later.” In 1969, after much lobbying, the Mohawks were given permission to form their own police force. The Peacekeepers were given the same functions as an urban force such as the Montreal police, but it was an early and very ancient experiment in community policing, operating according to Mohawk traditions. At the core, the Peacekeeper’s role was to keep human beings from harming each other.
“The peacekeepers have no hesitation about going to people, sitting down and talking to them about what they’ve done. We don’t raid people’s homes. We knock on their door and ask them to come in.”Andrew Delisle
The Kahnawake reserve started as a 20,000 acre tract awarded to the Mohawks in 1762 in gratitude for assisting the English in the war with the French. Over two hundred years the land had been whittled back to 12,500 acres as Canadians needed land for bridges, railways and seaways. Often this came in exchange for jobs, like steel work. But you’d be pissed too if someone constantly kept gnawing away at what was yours.
By November 1979 talks were underway for the coroner’s investigation ordered by Quebec Justice Minister Marc Andre Bedard. The Caughnawaga Band Council insisted the inquiry be held on Mohawk land, the QPF maintained it should be conducted where coroner’s inquiries are always held, at their headquarters at 1701 rue Parthenais. Further delays were anticipated when Quebec Civil Servants – which included court clerks – threatened a general strike later in the month. Jean-Claude Bernheim of the Quebec Civil Liberties Union urged the justice minister to “keep the QPF out of the Cross inquiry” after it was revealed the QPF officer Marcel Lacoste – himself a player in the Richard Blass affair in which the Montreal gangster was shot 27 times by police – would be permitted to investigate the shooting on behalf of the inquest:
The choice of Lacoste as an inquirer into the Cross affair is unjudicious given that this same policeman was implicated directly in the event which led to the death of Richard Blass, Jan. 24, 1975.”Jean-Claude Bernheim
The situation only worsened when on November 9, Fernand Giroux, one of the cabbies attacked in the retaliation incident, died in the Royal Victoria hospital as a result of his wounds. 400 taxi drivers attended Giroux’s funeral in LaSalle, passing the collection plate for his family. Father Leon Lajoie asked for forgiveness and urged the gathering to pardon those who didn’t know what they were doing. Three young women were being detained for the murder of Giroux.
At the coroner’s inquest, QPF constable Robert Lessard testified, “At no time did I want to kill that man.” Lessard stated the car pursuit began when Cross’s Chrysler passed the Ville St. Pierre interchange near LaSalle. His partner, Gervais Ouellet put on his flashers and siren and managed to pull alongside the vehicle as it crossed the Mercier Bridge, at times at speeds of 140 kilometers an hour in a 70 kilometer zone. Lessard rammed Cross’ Chrysler several times – almost forcing them into oncoming traffic – but was unable to slow the vehicle.
“The driver of the vehicle gave him the “finger” and shook his head indicating he had no intention of stopping.” Lessard testified that he shot Cross – twice in the stomach, once in the chest – when Cross opened the cruiser door and lunged at “my face”, though there had also been testimony that Lessard failed to warn the victim before firing his weapon. Nine witnesses also testified that Cross made no attempt to open the driver’s side door of the police vehicle. The shots were fired in rapid succession with one witness exclaiming, “The dirty bastards shot David.” Lessard then exited the vehicle, waving his gun in front of women and children and shouted, “You’re a bunch of crazy people.” Matthew Cross testified that his brother was simply trying to get him out of the back seat of the police car. As David Cross lay dying in the mud, Lessard called for backup rather than an ambulance.
On January 3, 1980, Quebec Coroner Cyrille Delage ruled that Quebec Police Force constable Robert Lessard was criminally responsible for the death of David Cross, calling Lessard’s actions an “abusive use of force… negligent, unskillful and acting without thinking.” David’s widow, Linda Cross said “It’s no victory for us yet. Victory will come when the person who killed (David) is jailed.” In the months that followed the October 20 shooting constables Lessard and Ouellet had continued to work for the Quebec Police Force, though the public had been lead to believe they were assigned to desk jobs. Cross family attorney, Frank Shoofey said he was surprised by the coroner’s decision because, “usually in all these cases the police are given the benefit of the doubt.”
Almost immediately, Quebec’s attorney-general charged constable Lessard with manslaughter for the shooting death of Cross. The news made the front page of the Saturday Gazette, but was overshadowed by the headline, “CLAUDE RYAN: THE PREMIER IN WAITING”, foretelling the almost certainty that the former director of Quebec’s Le Devoir newspaper and Liberal party member would become the next leader of Quebec. It was not to be as Rene Levesque’s Parti Quebecois won a second term in power. But the Liberals would live again with the second coming of Robert Bourassa, and Ryan serving as his Minister of Public Security during Bourassa’s fourth and final term a decade later, notably during the Oka Crisis.
By mid-week the director of the Quebec Police Force was upset by an “avalanche of insults” being hurled at his officers in the French press. Setting the bar at a limbo-low, Jacques Beaudoin argued,
“Our police force has 110 years of experience… and all administrations down through our history have had difficulties with the Indians. We certainly don’t believe our methods are error-free but they are certainly no worse than those in the rest of Canada and in the United States.”QPF Director Jacques Beaudoin
On January 25, 1980 constable Robert Lessard pleaded not guilty to the charge of manslaughter. A preliminary hearing was set for the spring. Over the course of those months, where the public had been lead to believe Lessard was confined to desk duty, it came to light that he and his partner, Gervais Ouellet had been working patrol for the QPF. When the Mohawks complained to Quebec Justice Minister Marc-Andre Bedard, he claimed that he too had been “mislead”. QPF director Jacques Beaudoin joined the acting claiming he had been similarly mislead, and a subordinate officer would be disciplined. The Mohawks were having none of it:
“Nobody will accept any responsibility for what’s happened. Bedard says it’s not his fault. Beaudoin says it’s not his fault and they’re blaming some nameless scapegoat in the middle.”Peter Dionne – editor, Indians of Quebec
That Lessard was out on police patrol was one of the worst kept secrets in the province. On December 14, 1979, Daniel Gignac of CHOM-FM, one of the most popular English radio stations in Montreal, was arrested by constables Lessard and Ouellet for drunk-driving. Gignac even complained at the time that Lessard had physically assaulted him – remember this would have been less than two months since Cross’ shooting, an event the coroner described as an “abusive use of force… negligent, unskillful and acting without thinking.” Linda Cross’s mother lamented, “We’ve been had again.” In court for the drunk-driving charge, Gignac testified that Lessard had knocked him to the ground and put him in handcuffs. The judge concluded it had been Gignac who was abusive, finding him guilty of resisting arrest for refusing to take a breathalyzer test.
“This whole thing has become a charade. It’s a mockery of justice… We’ve been shafted. As long as we have to work within this system we’re going to continue getting shafted.”Indians of Quebec editor, Peter Dionne
Lessard’s preliminary hearing was closed to the public at the request of the constable’s lawyer, Michel Proulx. Judge Luc Trudel finally decided that the case warranted that Lessard stand trial for the charge of manslaughter.
Approaching the one year anniversary of David Cross’s shooting death, Linda Cross filed a $264,500 damage action law suit against the Quebec government and constables Ouellet and Lessard charging they were “jointly and severally” responsible for the death of her husband. Specifically the suit argued that Lessard used “grossly excessive force” and acted in a totally “incompetent and unreasonable manner”, while Ouellet had “done nothing to attempt the orderly and peaceful arrest” of the victim.
At the trial held in November 1980, most of the testimony was the same or similar to what was heard at the coroner inquiry a year earlier. A witness testified that neither officer seemed in a particular hurry to check on Cross’s condition after Lessard shot him. A 15-year-old boy told the court Cross was unarmed when he was shot, “David put his hands up to protect his face just before the shots were fired.”
Lessard told the court that he “feared for his life”. “Glass was falling all over me” he dramatically told the court. It’s clear from photos that the squad car’s windshield was shattered and cracked, not broken. When asked why he hadn’t aimed for Cross’s arms or legs Lessard defended, “Everything was just happening too fast.” The Quebec Superior Court jury found Robert Lessard not guilty of the shooting death of David Cross. Lessard wept at the reading of the verdict, later telling the media:
“I want to stay on the force. I still want to be a policeman and serve the public. I just hope that this is the end of the nightmare.”
The Mohawks assured the public that there would be no reprisals. At the same time, the Kahnawake band council threatened to erect toll booths on highways passing through their reserve to raise money they argued that was owned to them by the federal government. A spokesman for the QPF made a statement that, “We have nothing more to say about [it]. The matter is finished, dead and buried as far as we’re concerned.”
Constable Lessard claimed innocence until the end, with all the major forces of Quebec public safety backing him up. By contrast, the three young Kahnawake women charged with manslaughter for the killing of that Montreal taxi-diver – which can be interpreted as a protest action in response to the Cross killing – pleaded guilty, and were sentenced to jail terms ranging from four to seven years.
Four years later Matthew Cross sued officers Lessard and Ouellet arguing that his “arrest, detention, and treatment was illegal and unjustified and constituted an abuse of power”. A judge ultimately ruled that the QPF constables – by 1984 referred to as Surete du Quebec officers – were blameless, but not the detention centre officials at Parthenais. Matthew Cross was awarded$3,000 in compensation for his troubles. In the summer of 1989 Michel Proulx, the lawyer who had defended constable Robert Lessard, was sworn in as a judge to the Quebec Court of Appeal.
For nearly a decade police did not openly enter the Kahnawake reserve land. Then in December 1989, reserve members charged that undercover Surete du Quebec officers infiltrated a Kahnawake high stakes bingo hall preparing for the arrest of a busload of departing participants. The following summer the Oka Crisis – The Resistance – would unfold on neighboring Kanesatake territory. The standoff between Mohawk Warriors, and the Canadian Armed Forces, RCMP and Surete du Quebec lasted 78 days and began when the town of Oka tried to expand a municipal golf course into a Mohawk burial ground and other sacred land known as The Pines. The Canadian government eventually ruled that the “conflict was rooted in a centuries old land dispute and fueled by racism.” One Mohawk elder and one Surete du Quebec officer lost their lives. To this day no one knows for sure who lit the match, who gave the order to deploy Surete du Quebec police to Mohawk land – was it SQ director, Robert Lavigne, or minister of public security, Claude Ryan, or the premier himself, Robert Bourassa?
In the 1990s Robert Lessard appears to have continued to work for Quebec law enforcement. In the spring of 1991, a Robert Lessard was investigating a robbery of $90,000 worth of computer equipment from a West Island manufacturing company on behalf of the Montreal police force. Later that summer that same Robert Lessard helped break up a heroin deal in St. Laurent and an extortion scam at a shopping mall in Cote Vertu.
The Covid health crisis has erased much of our pre-2020 memory. You may recall just prior to lockdown in March of 2020, a railway blockade southwest of Montreal done in conjunction with the Wet’suet’en protest, a solidarity movement against the construction of an oil pipeline in British Columbia. Similar to the 1990 blockade of the Mercier bridge, Kahnawake protesters blocked freight and commuter trains trying to cross their territory. By late February, the blockade had gone on for three weeks, frustrations were mounting, and this time, the matter was in the hands of the Kahnawake Peacekeepers.
By the 1990s the Peacekeepers had become fully funded by the federal and provincial governments, each providing approximately 50 percent of the 33-person force’s $4.5 million annual operating budget. Under an agreement with the Quebec government, “the Surete du Quebec and the Peacekeepers must take the necessary steps to ensure mutual assistance and co-operation with respect to the effective monitoring of compliance with applicable legislation.” This was not the first attempt at cooperation between the SQ and the Mohawks. In 2012 the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake asked the Quebec public security ministry for help establishing a SWAT team – made up exclusively of Mohawk Peacekeepers, but trained by Sûreté du Québec experts – to help fight organized crime.
For over 40 years – ever since the shooting of David Cross – the SQ has been barred from entering Kahnawake. Despite mounting public tensions, no one expected the Quebec police to intervene to disrupt the rail blockade unless instructed to by the Peacekeepers. Even the Premier, Francois Legault – who wanted the police to intervene – did not have the power to make that happen. Give Legault credit for at the least being transparent about his intentions.
In March 2020 the Kahnawake blockade ended peacefully. In a prepared statement, Mohawk film director, Roxann Whitebean commented,
“Let this be a strong message and demonstration of good faith to all of Canada, we prefer a peaceful resolution and demand that Indigenous Peoples’ rights be respected.”
1979 must have been some kind of year for Minister of Justice Marc-Andre Bedard. He was under attack. He was on his heels. In July there were the murders of Chantal Dupont and Maurice Marcil, thrown from the Jacques Cartier Bridge. You had Jacques Déry – the father of 13-year-old Diane Déry, murdered in 1975 – petitioning Bedard to transfer the case from Longueuil to the SQ. The Allo Police headlines were screaming “228 RAPES” in the province, year-to-date. Nicole Gaudreault was murdered that summer in Montreal. Edmond Turcotte was back in court concerning the 1975 murder of Diane Thibeault. Then just when it appeared things were settling down, along comes this constable, this reckless fool who shoots a Mohawk, then later has the nerve to tell the public he’d like to remain in law enforcement. And of course the prelude to these events was the discovery in the spring of 1979 of the body of Theresa Allore. Police I suspect hoped since her disappearance the prior year that she would turn up as a runaway, but SQ Inspector Roch Gaudreault anticipated the tragedy when he predicted her body would eventually be discovered after the snow melted. This completed the trilogy of murders in that era, and evidenced the possibility that a serial murderer had stalked the Eastern Townships. By 1979 serial murder, it seemed, was on the decline in Quebec. But what did not change was a consistency of incompetence from all the components of the Quebec justice system.