Opinion: Crime and disorder in Chinatown require a broader look

Montreal must review its approach to the unhoused and downtown’s security and quality of life, as incidents of violence multiply each month.

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In the last two months there have been loud public complaints from Montreal’s Chinatown residents, workers and merchants about growing crime and disorder that includes physical assault, vandalism, theft and drug trafficking.

How did we allow Chinatown, parts of which are now a heritage site, to deteriorate to such a disgraceful level? There are many factors at play.

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One problem is the proliferation of the unhoused population in Chinatown and in the whole downtown core as well as poor service planning and delivery.

There are now four agencies serving the unhoused in and around the new territory of Chinatown (which runs from de Bleury St. to the west to Ste-Élisabeth St. to the east, and from Viger Ave. to the south to René-Lévesque Blvd. to the north). The issue is not only that the 2,500 residents of Chinatown are surrounded by homeless shelters and people, but it is chiefly because decisions about these services were made by local authorities without proper consultation with local residents and merchants.

Historically, Chinatowns in North America have been treated as a dumping ground for the marginalized. In addition, the Chinese were and are still often seen as a quiet and submissive group who would not dare challenge authorities that often do not see them as full and equal citizens. Mayor Jean Drapeau’s attempt to adopt Bylaw 6513 in the early 1980s to limit Chinatown’s expansion and the city’s 2018 unilateral decision to build a public toilet in Chinatown are but two examples of exclusionary policy-making.

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The unilateral decision made in 2020 to temporarily house a homeless shelter inside the Guy-Favreau Complex, where more than 300 tenants and condo owners live, is part of this pattern of paternalistic policy-making.

Many complain that the frequency of violence and disorder linked to some segments of the unhoused population makes Chinatown less safe. Many are also angry that their safety takes a back seat to the tolerance of crime in the name of compassion and “cohabitation”, while crime occurs openly, with impunity, within two blocks of the Montreal police headquarters and city hall.

The second problem is authorities’ lack of action toward public safety issues in Chinatown. The volume of 911 calls and complaints from residents and merchants in the last two years are impossible to ignore. Why authorities, social science researchers and some community advocates, most of whom are not local residents or merchants, seem oblivious to local people’s concern about crime and disorder is an open question.

The third problem, which is systemic, is the exclusionary vision of Chinatown held by local authorities and some segments of the Chinese community. The newly expanded boundaries of Chinatown have added many more residents and homeowners who are not Chinese. Like those of diverse origins who have lived in the Guy-Favreau Complex for decades, these residents are an integral part of Chinatown and demand to be counted and heard.

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Yet consultative and planning structures supported by the city or the borough that purport to represent Chinatown have not been inclusive of these non-Chinese residents and businesses, such as major hotels and the Palais des congrès.

This has become a fault line with serious implications for the area as a whole. Indeed, the existential challenges facing Chinatown go beyond development and include gentrification and demographic transformation along race, age and language lines.

Finally, the revolt against crime and disorder in Chinatown is a repeat of what happened in the Atwater, Milton Parc and Village neighbourhoods. It speaks to a broader and more compelling need for a thorough review of the city’s approach to the unhoused and downtown’s security and quality of life, as incidents of violence multiply each month.

Examples in Vancouver and San Francisco, where the situation has reached critical proportions, serve as a reminder that a new strategy is urgently needed to prevent the same situation from taking place before it’s too late.

Fo Niemi is the executive director of the Center for Research-Action on Race Relations (CRARR)

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