Valérie Plante and Will Prosper Montreal North Montréal Nord smear campaign

Montreal North will have the final say on the candidacy of Will Prosper

A shameful smear campaign against the borough mayor candidate is being waged by a certain local publication and by politicians whose records are far from spotless.

The news was intended to be a political bombshell and it was certainly treated as such. “An embarrassing star candidate for Valérie Plante” screamed the front page of the Journal de Montréal, Quebec’s most widely read daily newspaper, last Thursday. “The RCMP suspected Will Prosper of leaking information to criminals.” 

According to the Journal investigation, the Montreal filmmaker, longtime activist, former RCMP officer and current candidate for mayor in the Montreal North borough, running under the Projet Montréal banner, had been forced to resign from the force 22 years ago for consulting a police database in 1999 for personal reasons, while he was an RCMP constable in Manitoba. Prosper wanted to see whether three individuals — two of whom were childhood friends of his — were suspects in a murder investigation. After consulting the database, police records show that he called one of the suspects. After his actions came to light, an investigation took place and Prosper was forced to resign. 

Last Friday, Mayor Plante stood by her candidate while he acknowledged he had made a grave error but never crossed the line by sharing any information with gang members. Mayor Plante reiterated her faith in him, saying that, while she didn’t want to minimize his actions, he had paid the price by losing his job, and his two decades of community involvement since then had already shown he was worthy of people’s trust. She concluded that “Prosper is more than his mistake” and insisted that he remains the right person for the job. 

Others, of course, disagree. 

Within hours of the news coming out, both Montreal mayoral candidate Denis Coderre and current Montreal North mayor Christine Black (who is on Coderre’s Ensemble Montréal team) called on Prosper to resign, expressing concerns about his past and working hard to create a direct link between that incident and any alleged current ties to criminal gangs. Their concerns were almost gleefully echoed by a pile-on of five different opinion columns by the same news outlet that broke the story. One by one, these pundits all judged him a troubling choice, alluded to the candidate’s possible current connections with gangs, and concluded he should quit because of his criminal past. 

There’s only one problem. Prosper doesn’t have a criminal past. 

Judge Prosper on the facts 

Journal de Montréal smear campaign
Journal de Montréal smear campaign. Photo by Xavier Camus

If the RCMP investigation had found any evidence that he had committed a crime, you can be certain that he would have been charged 22 years ago. If he had a criminal past, he would have never made it through the vetting process in 2012 when he ran as a candidate for Québec Solidaire in Bourassa-Sauvé. Nor would he have passed the current vetting process and be in the running for mayor of Montreal North now. 

His actions in 1999 were a breach of security and people are allowed to be troubled by what he did, but an opinion on Prosper should be formed based on accurate information, not insinuations, allegations or slander. I reiterate: Prosper was suspected of leaking information but was only ever found guilty of consulting the police database and speaking to one of the suspects. I read the entire RCMP disciplinary hearing report and can confirm this.

Sergeant Black, the officer in charge of the major crimes’ unit in Winnipeg, concluded that “he found no proof that (Will Prosper) had leaked any information to anyone.” Prosper willingly passed a polygraph test, repeatedly told the RCMP that they were wasting their time and even offered to help them in their investigation. He was subsequently asked to resign from the police force because a breach of confidence had (understandably) taken place. At the same time, he also signed a confidentiality agreement, preventing him from ever publicly discussing the incident. News outlets and pundits now framing it as “leaking information to gang members” are sharing information that is 100% inaccurate.  

Incidentally, the RCMP report also mentions that Prosper was well-respected and trusted in the community he was serving at the time. He also received an honourable mention for saving a young girl from drowning. That information was not included in the Journal de Montréal exposé, perhaps because it’s not useful information within the context of a smear campaign. 

I am not here to necessarily defend Prosper’s actions 22 years ago, which I suspect were motivated by concern for a childhood friend, who, I should add, was a suspect, but never charged in the investigation. What Prosper did was wrong. He made a mistake, and he paid a heavy price by losing his job and the potential career it represented. But regardless of how any of us feel about his actions, unless we’re eligible to cast a vote in Montreal North, it doesn’t really matter. Prosper is legally allowed to run as a candidate, his party is standing behind him and voters in that borough will be the ones who ultimately decide whether what he did is unforgivable, or whether it’s in the past and doesn’t reflect on his character and his 20 subsequent years of service to the community. 

Why now?

Will Prosper Montreal North Montréal Nord smear campaign
Will Prosper (born Wiel Prosper)

My first question when the revelations came out was, “Why now?” I admit that I found the timing a little suspect.

As the co-founder of Hoodstock and Montréal-Nord Republik, two grassroots community-based collectives that operate within and for the Montreal North community, a vocal member of the Black Lives Matter and Defund the Police movements, Prosper has been in the public spotlight for almost 15 years. He’s spent years granting interviews, making documentaries and pretty much being a thorn in the side of municipal politicians and the Montreal police, calling out racial profiling, discrimination and police brutality. But only eight days after announcing his candidacy, the past suddenly came back to haunt him.

Someone purposefully went digging for dirt. 

Why did a mainstream outlet suddenly decide to allocate valuable resources (particularly in the summer when most news organizations are running on empty in terms of staff) to investigate a community organizer running for borough mayor? Those who support Prosper suspect several reasons, from deliberate political sabotage to systemic racism. Given the timing, their theories are not without merit. 

Within hours of the revelations, Coderre called Prosper a “mole” for criminal gangs (both untrue and defamatory) and demanded that Valérie Plante drop him as a candidate. Christine Black tweeted that “As long as [Plante] is mayor, Montrealers will not be safe. Amid a gun-violence crisis she nominated a candidate removed from the RCMP because of links with street gangs. She has to remove Will Prosper.”

Prosper’s supporters are calling it a calculated smear campaign and wondering about the sudden interest in Montreal North’s first Black candidate for borough mayor, while others simply see the opposition opportunistically jumping on the troubling revelation to embarrass and undermine Plante’s campaign. 

What you see often entirely depends on what you’re looking for, but five disparaging columns and counting on Will Prosper in the span of 48 hours seems like a disproportionate amount of focus on one man. The revelations have, of course, managed to shake public faith in Prosper and many mainstream columnists have wondered whether he can come back from something like this. 

A groundswell of community support for Prosper

Will Prosper with Tampa Bay Lightning’s Mathieu Joseph of Montreal North

But the reality on the ground is often quite different from the one in newsrooms and political boardrooms. Since the revelations, I have seen no one from Montreal North disassociate or distance themselves from Prosper. If anything, what’s currently being perceived as a smear campaign has only solidified support for him. It speaks volumes about how well-respected Prosper is in Montreal North and how voters there feel about him as a candidate. 

A former resident of Montreal North for many years, Marjorie Reinoso has known Prosper for a long time. Her aunt is close friends with the mother of Fredy Villanueva, the young teenager shot dead by Montreal police in 2008.

“Montréal Nord Republik members used to hold meetings in my aunt’s home years ago and that’s when I met Will. I still go to the annual vigil for Fredy every year and I’ve seen up close the support they gave his family and the fight for social justice they undertook following his death,” she says. “Later on, when Hoodstock was created, I saw how they rallied the community, showcasing local artists and bringing everyone together through the pain and the hurt.”

Reinoso has been a long-time supporter of Prosper and the latest developments have done nothing to sway that support. 

“That article didn’t change my opinion of him at all,” she says. “They clearly had to dig really deep to find something negative about him because he’s been involved in so much positive (action) in the past 15 years. Are they going to start looking at his elementary years, too? How far back will they go? He made a mistake, and he paid the price. Are people not allowed to redeem themselves? Since then, he’s given back a thousand times over.” 

One of those examples of giving back she points to is recent. When the pandemic hit, Montreal North was hit hard. Population density, poverty, a severe lack of resources and public services, a large percentage of residents who were new immigrants and refugees working as hospital orderlies at high risk of COVID exposure brought together many elements that created the perfect storm for high positivity rates in the community. Many caught COVID and many more died. 

“Will and Hoodstock members were going door-to-door handing out masks, handing out information on where people could get tested,” says Reinoso. “There hasn’t been anyone in that neighbourhood who I’ve seen in the trenches the way he’s been.” 

Not only is she unaffected by the news, but the reaction has served to amplify her support. “This smear campaign motivated me to actively register to be a volunteer on his campaign.”

The glee with which some right-leaning pundits celebrated the Prosper findings certainly reveals some uncomfortable truths. Prosper bothers people. Many don’t like what he represents. Mostafa Henaway, co-editor of A Citizen’s Guide to City Politics, a progressive, non-partisan exploration of Montreal issues in time for the city’s municipal campaign, wrote in a Facebook post that an attack on Prosper isn’t just an attack on him, “but an entire community completely shunned from the institutions of power and decision making as a result of structural racism. This attack is about the actual fear of those whose interests lay in ensuring that communities such as Montréal Nord become scapegoats for inflated police budgets and the vile racism that backs it.” 

Changing things from within 

He’s not alone. Many I interviewed in the community seem to feel there is an ongoing battle taking place between those who point out systemic racism and police brutality and those who insist there’s nothing to look at. For the first time ever, there’s a chance that a political outsider, a self-described activist, someone born and raised in Montreal North, someone who is seen by many voters as “one of them” might have the opportunity to be part of the decision-making process from the inside. That makes some people, who point to Prosper’s anti-police bias while unable to see their own pro-status-quo bias, understandably nervous. 

Nargesse Mustapha has known Prosper for at least 13 years. She co-founded Hoodstock and Montréal-Nord Republik with him and considers him the ideal candidate for the job. 

“He’s a product of Montreal North and the person Montreal North needs,” she tells me. “Will has proven himself both with his individual actions and as part of two collective groups. I’ve been a witness to him as an activist and he’s dedicated to transforming an area that’s been completely abandoned by politicians for decades. We did so much with so little during the pandemic, while Mayor Black was completely MIA on the ground. I can only imagine what we could do with more resources and money allocated for the area.” 

Mustapha particularly bristles at accusations that Prosper has attempted to gain political points and sympathy because of his community involvement. “We’ve essentially been volunteering for 13 years,” she says. “I have seen the work that Will has put in over the years… going to talk to kids in Montreal North schools, accompanying young kids in trouble, in danger of ending up involved in crime, helping them gain confidence in themselves, or assisting them with their job searches. We often talk about representation in politics, but he’s a Black man of Haitian origin, someone who grew up here, went to school here, someone that so many young kids in the neighbourhood can identify with.” 

Mustapha sees Christine Black’s tweets as proof of the incumbent mayor’s disconnect from the Montreal North community, and her fear-mongering as disdain for its youth. “It’s so intellectually dishonest to accuse someone of ‘associating with gang members’ when it’s almost impossible not to know someone from the community who went down the wrong path in this neighbourhood.” 

Reinoso echoes that sentiment. “Some of these neighbourhoods are rough and have real challenges… I’ve seen this in the Latino communities or Black communities, where you grew up with people who got involved in the wrong things. Sometimes, those people are family. Are you supposed to completely stop fraternizing with them?” 

People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones

Thierry Lindor grew up in Montreal North and Saint-Michel. He’s known Prosper since he was in high school when they used to hang out in the same basketball groups and have remained friends through the years. He sees the current revelations as a politically motivated smear campaign aimed at discrediting a candidate his political opponents see as a serious threat in a borough Denis Coderre considers his personal fortress.

Lindor is glad that Plante is sticking by him and is quick to point to the double standards in the public reaction regarding the revelations about Prosper. He says few in mainstream media have been willing to point out that Coderre, who seems intent on running a campaign for his re-election on public safety and keeps ensuring Montrealers he will work with the SPVM to protect them from crime, has his own skeletons in the closet — and most of them are much more recent than the ones Prosper has in his.

Speaking on La Joute on Monday, Ensemble Montréal’s most recent candidate, Jean Airoldi told host Paul Larocque that he agreed with his party leader Denis Coderre that Prosper wasn’t a good candidate because “in politics one must have a clean file.”

How does Airoldi feel then about his own leader’s file? 

Sixteen years ago, Coderre’s name appeared more than a few times during the Gomery Commission on the Liberals’ Sponsorship scandal. While Coderre, who was a federal minister at the time, has always denied misappropriation of public funds to finance his electoral campaign, despite testimonies contradicting him, he remained under suspicion for his close ties to certain instrumental players like Claude Boulay, head of Everest, a company that generously benefited from Liberal donations. How close of a friend, you ask? Coderre lived for free for six weeks in a condo owned by Boulay. Coderre also had to defend himself in 2013 against allegations that he had negotiated a secret deal brokered by Eddy Brandone, a union official linked to the mafia.

Like Prosper, the allegations against Coderre were never proven. But Coderre now somehow feels comfortable calling on Prosper to resign when his own record is far from spotless. 

Since then, a few other incidents involving Coderre have made headlines. One took place five years ago, when he called who he referred to as “his police chief” at the time, Marc Parent, to inquire about questions being posed by journalist Patrick Lagacé. Lagacé was digging around to substantiate a rumour that Coderre had avoided paying a speeding ticket. Within days, police had obtained search warrants to look at Lagacé’s cell phone logs. Coderre insisted that he had nothing to do with the surveillance scandal, but, considering the timing, questions were understandably raised about possible political interference. 

While Coderre is now calling on Plante to drop her candidate, insisting she made a terrible choice in Prosper, Coderre’s own choice back in 2013 for mayor of Montreal North was former police officer Gilles Deguire, who would later be accused of sexual assault of a 16-year-old and would eventually plead guilty to a charge of sexual touching of a minor. While Coderre may have had nothing to do with Deguire’s personal conduct, he’s certainly engaging in a lot of stone-throwing from a glass house right now. 

Second chances exist

Will Prosper Montreal North Nord
Will Prosper and Valérie Plante

While Lindor acknowledges that Prosper made a horrible mistake in looking up information in the database, he believes in Prosper’s value as a candidate and integrity as a human being. 

“He has the ability to galvanize people, to mobilize them, these are the qualities I look for in a leader,” he says. “I would put his track record ahead of any other politician’s track record. Coderre and some of these politicians may have the pockets, but Will has the people. I have known him since high-school and he’s a good person. He’s a fighter, he doesn’t back down and I’ve never known him to lie.” 

Lindor considers the fact that Prosper knows Montreal North and what the community needs to be his best asset. As the father of two young children, Lindor also understands the impact a win for Prosper would mean for many young members of the community. 

“Will is relatable. Black and Brown boys will be directly impacted by seeing someone who grew up in this neighborhood, who looks like them, talks like them, be given an opportunity to move up in the world and aspire to the mayoralty,” he says.

“The biggest way to remedy the gang violence and all the issues that plague Montreal North is from the ground up… showing people positive non-gang banger images of success. To show people that you can be so much more than they told you that you could be. Perhaps we’ll never know the actual impact but Prosper running and winning in this riding will make some young kids put their guns down and perhaps understand that it’s not too late for them either. That second chances exist. He’s a beacon of hope for so many young kids.” 

At the end of the day, it will all come down to voters of Montreal North who, on November 7, will decide who is best suited to represent them and their interests. And while there appears to be a strong political machine trying to convince many that Prosper is woefully unsuited for the task at hand, a groundswell of local support seems to indicate that many in the community feel quite differently. 

The determining factor may be those in the middle who have taken no side yet and whether they believe in second chances –and who they will choose to give those to. ■

Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.