Two Montreal teenagers and the politics of sympathy

“The death of a Black child clearly means something different in a world where systemic racism and violence have, for centuries, produced disproportionate rates of Black death.”

An editorial co-written by Ted Rutland and Délice Mugabo, with insights from Nathalie Batraville.

Thomas Trudel, a white teenager, was gunned down on a street in Saint-Michel on Nov. 14. The murder renewed fears of gun violence in Montreal and sparked a wave of public sympathy across Quebec, most of it framed in the language of kinship. Both Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante and SPVM director Sylvain Caron laid flowers on the site of Trudel’s death. Mayor Plante conveyed “all our sympathies” to the Trudel family, who lost their “little one,” while Caron explained that investigators working on the case were as affected by the murder as he was, “because we are all parents of children.” Later that week, it was Quebec Premier François Legault’s turn. After laying flowers on top of flowers, Legault imagined himself in the place of Trudel’s parents, saying “I can’t even imagine losing one of my sons like this.” “A parent should never have to bury a child,” he concluded.

Thomas Trudel vigil
A vigil for Thomas Trudel. Photo by Thomas Quinn

These expressions of public sympathy were jarring in a context where a Black teenager, Jannai Dopwell-Bailey, had been stabbed to death outside his school just two weeks earlier. Neither Plante nor Legault laid flowers at the site of his murder. Nor did they offer any sympathy to his mother, Charla Dopwell, who heard their silence loud and clear. “It’s a community of colour, so they don’t care [about us],” she commented. “Unfortunately, Jannai is a Black child from Côte-des-Neiges,” added his cousin Onica John. “His death was like nothing [to them].” 

Indeed, the unequal responses to the death of two Montreal teenagers fit into a longer history and system of power. The death of a Black child clearly means something different in a world where systemic racism and violence have, for centuries, produced disproportionate rates of Black death. The death of a Black child, for many people, is simply a normal occurrence — a non-event. As Black scholar Christina Sharpe explains, “the ongoing state-sanctioned legal and extra legal murders of Black people are normative and, for this so-called democracy, necessary; it is the ground we walk on.” 

Sure enough, the Montreal media offered a simple explanation of Dopwell-Bailey’s death.

La Presse printed a photo of the teenager making what many readers would interpret as a gang sign and described him as a member of a gang called “One Sixty.” The latter, as a friend of Dopwell-Bailey’s explained on Twitter, is not a gang, but the name of a group of friends hailing from a sector of Côte-des-Neiges served by the 160 bus route. No matter. Dopwell-Bailey’s murder had been explained. It was the result of gang violence and, thus, both predictable and partially self-imposed by the young “gang member.” In contrast, Thomas Trudel was described by media as a youth “without history,” an identity that gave his death a different meaning — unexplainable and “gratuitous.”

Charla Dopwell speaking at a memorial for her late son Jannai Dopwell-Bailey. Photo by Thomas Quinn

Like the death of a Black child, the grief of a Black mother tends to be received within an existing system of meaning. Slavery, for one thing, wrenched apart the kinship relation that would otherwise bind mother and child. A Black child born under slavery belonged not to the mother, but to the enslaver. It was common in present-day Quebec, as the work of Charmaine Nelson and Délice Mugabo shows, for Black children to be sold to enslavers halfway across the country or the world. This relationship has carried into the present in numerous ways. It is most visible in the “child welfare” and juvenile justice systems, which consistently and disproportionately remove Black children from their families.

Adding to the harm, Black families are often blamed for the socially organized removal of their children. As Black scholar and activist Robyn Maynard explains, the “pathologization” of Black parents “dates back centuries [and] permeates decision-making across the entirety of the child welfare [and juvenile justice] system.” The removal of a Black child is framed as the result of the family’s dysfunction, while the death of a Black child is the result of the family’s criminality or permissiveness toward it.

Not surprisingly, Journal de Montréal columnist Richard Martineau used Thomas Trudel’s murder as an opportunity to share his thoughts about Black families. Assuming (without evidence) that Trudel’s killer was Black, Martineau blamed the murder on absent Black fathers and the presumed inability of single mothers to discipline their children. The argument, an untenable though increasingly familiar one in discourses criminalizing Black youth in Montreal since the 1980s, ultimately blames the death of both Trudel and Dopwell-Bailey on the supposed failings of Black parents. 

The politics of public sympathy, then, are shaped by a long history of systemic racism and violence. This history is expressed in the inattention of Plante and Legault to the death of Dopwell-Bailey, as well as the two leaders’ support for a growing police campaign against Black youth and their refusal to increase funding for Black community programs. And yet, the silence of Plante and Legault has been filled by the voices of Dopwell-Bailey’s family, other Black Montrealers, and other community members. A GoFundMe page, started by the community, continues to gather donations, and a walk in honour of Jannai will take place on Saturday Dec. 4. We encourage everyone to contribute and attend.

For the complete photo essay by Thomas Quinn, please click here.

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