On the Road: The Killer and School Dropout | Elections Quebec 2022
When he committed the irreparable, he was barely an adult and had not finished high school. Today, Sam is serving a life sentence and he is thinking. “If you want to stem the problem of gun violence, you have to make sure that boys stay in school. This text is the tenth in our series On the Road – In Search of Quebec.
Street gangs use shoes to announce themselves on a territory.
MONTREAL – Upon our return from the Outaouais, we dropped our bags in Montreal. At the convenience store on the corner of my street, I bought milk and coffee, essential drugs for my survival, as well as a copy of the Journal de Montréal. I still like to blacken my fingers on paper by going through the various facts at breakfast. On page 13, the Journalreports “Two people shot in Longueuil in a parking lot”, the first line of the article: “Violence continues to rage in Greater Montreal”.
Indeed, for decades months, events like this make the headlines. In Laval, Longueuil, Montreal North, Anjou or Plateau-Mont-Royal. Shootings, weapons, dramas, tears. Young people with guns. Why?
I had given him an appointment in a large park in the Villeray district, where he had been living for a few months. Arrived a little early, I waited on a bench, pensive. For the first time in my life, I was going to meet someone who had committed a murder.
Preparing this series In Search of Quebec, I absolutely wanted to address this subject of gun violence. But I didn't want to meet what is called in journalistic jargon a logue – as in: criminologist, psychologist, sociologist, etc. – and I found Sam, 34. He has just been released from prison. He entered it when he was 20 years old. A life sentence for second degree murder… He is now in a halfway house.
“Sam” gave us an interview in a park.
In 2008, Sam*, that's his nickname, was selling drugs in a working-class neighborhood in Montreal. Out of respect for his victim's family, we will withhold his real name. He remembers it was snowing the day he took the life of the son of parents he orphaned. He often thinks of them. He is very sorry. He asked for their forgiveness. They refused. I took a brother, a son, an uncle from a lot of people, they are angry with me and that's normal. I was very angry with myself for having committed this irreparable gesture.
He was also very angry with himself for having plunged his parents into terrible pain. A few hours after the murder, Sam returned, as if nothing had happened, to his parents who knew nothing of his daily life as a criminal. On the threshold of the family home, the police were waiting for him. My family are upstanding citizens. My parents were in disbelief.
The 34-year-old man tells me all this straight up with an impressive vocabulary. He has, paradoxically, a frank and gentle look. Jail saved my life, he says. He does not seek to diminish the scope of his gesture, but he explains what led him to murder one winter evening. If I hadn't dropped out of school, none of this would have happened, he explains. If the government wants to act on the problem of gun violence, the solution in my opinion is simple, we must attack school dropouts at all costs, Sam asserts with conviction.
In secondary 1, Sam repeats his year. It discouraged him, he was anxious. So he left school without anyone caring too much about it. He went to work at McDonald's and did odd jobs in restaurants. I realized that without a diploma, I would never have a good salary. At 17, I started selling drugs to make money, he recalls.
And money, it was quite a lot. He was selling crack. It was lucrative. I was making almost $2000 a week in 2008! For the teenager that I was, it was huge!
I ask him if he was part of a street gang. I understand your question. Many prison workers have asked me the same question. But you have to understand that we don't see it that way. We grew up in the neighborhood and the friends I sold with were neighbors, guys I knew from childhood. It's not like sending your resume to a company. It's more organic than that.
Sam kept the drugs at his house for the group he deals with. He was still living with his parents at the time. One day, he has the 18 ounces of crack hidden in his childhood room stolen. That means, Sam understands, competitors have entered the family home. He is afraid. He no longer sleeps. In addition, the stock is very expensive.
Haggard, Sam reports the theft to his debtors, who show no empathy. He must pay anyway and reimburse the value of the lost drug, on the market at the time. I realized that the buddies I was selling with, in fact, weren't friends, but tough associates. I refused to pay, and then the threats began.
Sam says that some time after the theft, the threats escalate. His former colleagues make him understand that if he does not pay, they will go after his family. They said, “We know where your family lives, you know what we're going to do if you don't pay.” As I knew them, I knew that it was not words in the air, he explains. When you hang out with people like that, you know very well that they are not in a talk-to-talk game, he sums up.
Sam remembers becoming, then, paranoid. He is plagued by fear. He no longer sleeps. He smokes pot to calm his raw nerves a bit. I was isolated. Anxious. I couldn't go get help. I couldn't report them to the police; talk to my parents, we don't even talk about it.
Then, Sam finds out who stole the stock from him. He confronts him on a street corner, in front of a convenience store. The snowstorm is in full swing, he recalls. It's 6 p.m. I asked him to give me back what he had stolen from me. He sent me for a walk. He insulted me. I was nervous. Angry. The guy was laughing at me saying, “What are you going to do?”. Sam fired. For years, in his sleep, he replayed this scene. The first years of my incarceration in the penitentiary, my cellmate told me that I was talking in my sleep, I lived this conversation, night after night, he remembers.
In the penitentiary, Sam has finished high school. He is currently finishing his CEGEP. I ask him if he has any advice for politicians to stem the violence that is rampant in our streets.
School dropout is the basic problem. You settle that first. I know this may sound simplistic, but I'm telling you, this really is the solution: keep the guys in school.