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MONTREAL–To the unknowing eye, like that of a tourist, the reaction is basically, "Huh?"
"We saw them, all in a group, all wearing something different. One had white pants on, with handcuffs painted across his butt," said Elizabeth Reeb, 62, a tourist from Alberta. "I was shocked, but also a bit amused. You don't see police look like that everyday."
"We thought it was weird," echoed her friend Pearl Forsyth, 57, as they prepared to visit Notre Dame Cathedral in old Montreal, "because our police would never do that."
To see a police officer in Montreal these days is to see a strange sight. Officers are wearing just about anything below the belt, except uniform pants, that is. Jeans, track pants, pyjamas, parachute pants, and lots of camouflage, in grey, green, purple, even hot pink.
One officer even tried to wear Santa Claus pants, another a kilt, until their superiors told them to go home and change – back into something more "appropriate."
What's going on? It's a pressure tactic, one primarily used by police forces in Quebec, and with such a long history here that residents know exactly what's happening: a labour dispute.
Montreal's 4,500 officers have been without a contract since December 2006, and no one is at the bargaining table. Since it's an essential service with no right to strike, the police say it's the best way they know how to legally show their displeasure.
"They can wear whatever they want as long as it's not uniform, and as long as it's quite visible," said Martin Viau, spokesperson for the Montreal Police Brotherhood. One officer on the street yesterday said the idea is to "tarnish the image" of the city and police.
The union says that if they accepted the city's last offer, they'd be in the middle of the pack of all Quebec forces' remuneration, unfair for officers in the most "dangerous, biggest" city.
They say the strategy is effective, that people haven't complained to them about it. The mayor, Gérald Tremblay, publicly worried about the image it was creating. He said it was "a question of respect."
Denis Murray, who has been a horse-carriage driver for 15 years, said tourists have asked him about it. "They think it's a farce. They ask me, `Why are they wearing that?'
"I don't agree with it," the 50-year-old opined. "They are simply spoiled babies, super well-paid compared to normal people."
First-class constables on the force currently make over $66,500 a year.
In July, the officers began to wear jeans, as well as red baseball caps with the union logo on them. As of last Monday they've stepped up the pressure, and now nearly anything goes.
It has so angered the city's police chief, Yvan Delorme, that last week he told the province's Essential Services Council the behaviour must stop.
He argued that especially in immigrant neighbourhoods such as Montreal North, where police-community relations are strained since the shooting of an unarmed 18-year-old last month, camouflage "could project an image of confrontation, repression and combat," more reflective of war zones and military dictatorships, from which many residents might have fled.
The council, which can rule on labour action, disagreed and allowed the police to continue their protest.
This kind of police tactic has a long history in Quebec. Montreal's force wore jeans as far back as 1994 during a contract dispute. The provincial police force wore camouflage last year, as did the police in Gatineau, prompting Ottawa's police chief to bar the neighbouring city's officers from coming into his own.
Quebec City officers, also in a contract dispute, have been wearing camouflage for nine or 10 months, Viau said.
In 2001, officers in Calgary were sent home for wearing jeans. Toronto's police union has threatened to wear jeans, but mostly its job action consisted of writing fewer tickets. Montreal's union said that's not happening here. But street officers say they're slowing things down.
There is sympathy for the police. Tourist Jean-Pierre Florence, from Alsace, France – a country where job action is perhaps an art form – said it's "an excellent manner in which to demonstrate their unhappiness, while still acting in the public service."
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