In the wake of countless films and TV series, the very word “gang” evokes an entertainment subgenre with standard features: theft, drugs, prostitution, internal rivalries, crooked cops, murder, and tons of male ego. Out to Defend Ourselves, which charts the evolution of Montreal’s first Haitian street gang, the Bélangers, contains all of these elements, but the end result is far from sensationalist — or fictitious. A collaboration between Maxime Aurélien, a former leader of the Bélangers, and Ted Rutland, an interdisciplinary scholar at Concordia University, the book instead aims to place 1980s gang culture in a social context that corrects for the double standards deployed against young Black people.
“Instead of being purveyors of violence, the gang was a response to the violence of others,” Out to Defend Ourselves argues. “Rather than ‘terrorizing the city,’ les Bélangers confronted existing terrors and helped make the city less dangerous for Haitians and other marginalized groups.” The authors claim that the Bélangers — who took their name from a park, in Rosemont–La Petite‑Patrie, that’s officially known as Sainte-Bernadette — were above all a group of friends who decided to fight back against insults and physical attacks by white racists. Those members who engaged in petty crime were responding rationally to their exclusion from the job market. As for the group’s transformation into an increasingly violent and criminal enterprise, law enforcement itself can be blamed. The aggressive manoeuvres of the police “tilted the composition” of such groups toward those who were most rebellious and willing to risk jail time: “The result was a vicious, circular dynamic that persists into the present.”
This provocative argument diverges so dramatically from mainstream perceptions of gangs that some readers might be tempted to dismiss it as woke nonsense. Yet Aurélien and Rutland make their counter-narrative credible by demonstrating how hostile Montreal could be toward Haitian immigrants, themselves fleeing the brutal Duvalier dictatorship and persistent poverty. Whereas Haitians who arrived in Quebec in the 1960s were often professionals who took up roles in education and health care, the less educated cohorts that followed faced far higher barriers. Unemployment rates for non-white young people were shocking — reaching 65 percent in 1984. The taxi industry, a rare source of jobs for many new arrivals, was marked by overt racism, as “white Quebeckers often refused to ride with a Haitian driver.” Ten of the city’s fifteen cab companies stopped hiring Haitians altogether; one even advertised its “all-white team of drivers.” And because of housing discrimination, the Haitian community was concentrated in the city’s northeast, where adolescents became targets for skinheads, wannabe bikers, and other troublemakers from the white majority. Against this backdrop, one can understand why teenage boys might move in groups and fight back against their harassers. For Aurélien and his friends, “defending ourselves was about claiming our place.”
Still, the argument that the resulting fights were a form of political resistance fractures when the authors turn to conflicts between the young Haitians and Black anglophones, generically dubbed “Jamaicans.” These escalating disputes saw three of Aurélien’s friends murdered, but he insists there was no battle over territory, as the police claimed. Rather, the violence sprang from perceived slights, competition over girls, and vague linguistic rivalries. (Aurélien’s protestation reads as a darkly comic reminder not to give teenage boys too much credit.) Soon the Haitians began attacking each other for similarly petty reasons. Such episodes suggest that these marginalized men developed hair-trigger fuses and a taste for adrenalin and power.
Aurélien and Rutland are most convincing when they detail the misdeeds of the police. In addition to the killings of Anthony Griffin in 1987 and Presley Leslie in 1990, the book describes brutal crackdowns on breakdancing squads at the McGill metro station as well as a regular Wednesday-night soccer game in Parc Bélanger. Meanwhile, gang task forces led to the over-surveillance of Black communities, such that, by the mid-2000s, the police had concocted a list of 10,000 potential gang members —“a preposterous figure.” As the authors note, “There is no list containing the names of 10,000 suspected Montreal mafia members or bikers. These categories, these white categories, have much clearer boundaries and do not result in the criminalization of Italian or Québécois people in general.”
Aurélien and his friends did get locked up, and they came to see youth detention centres as a “kind of training school,” where they could learn “new skills” from more experienced criminals. This observation, in and of itself, provides a reason to reform our justice system.
The book is also engaging at the level of form, as it contributes to the anguished debates about who should represent whom. In the introduction, the authors explain that Rutland transcribed conversations with Aurélien and integrated them with his own research. Aurélien then suggested corrections and revisions. The Black subject and the white professor share equal credit, and the volume has been simultaneously released in French, as Il fallait se défendre (Mémoire d’encrier). As a project, Out to Defend Ourselves thus models a pragmatic solution to the gap between those who have stories to tell and those who have the resources and inclination to write. More questionable is the choice to compose the book in the first person, from Aurélien’s perspective. Although the authors hoped the result would be “more lively and personal,” the prose is rather flat, perhaps due to the desire to preserve Aurélien’s exact wording. The shifts between his story and the broader historical context also risk being read as excuses for bad behaviour. Explaining the emergence of gangs as a response to social structures is a laudable endeavour. When this analysis appears in the voice of an individual gang leader, however, it can sound like someone dodging accountability for his choices.
Ultimately, these concerns are minor when weighed against the larger contribution that Out to Defend Ourselves makes to understandings of crime, racism, and police brutality. Rich in details and compelling as a collaborative model, it demystifies gangs and points to less panicked ways of responding to urban violence. Not everyone will be convinced by this counter-narrative, but it’s nonetheless an essential part of a broader conversation.