As the Truth and Reconciliation Commission delivered its final report in Ottawa Dec. 15, the Cree Nation Government and chiefs of three local Anishnabe and Algonquin communities were joining forces with the city of Val-d’Or in their own “historic” effort to fight abuse and promote healthy coexistence.
The alliance resulted from the public furor that erupted after Radio-Canada’s Enquête program aired a report Oct. 22 revealing serious accusations of abuse of Indigenous women by officers of the Val-d’Or Sûreté du Québec police detachment. Five days later, Cree Nation Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come announced the cancellation of community events planned for Val-d’Or.
At the time, Coon Come criticized the city’s reaction to the Radio-Canada report, commenting that, “the mayor of Val-d’Or’s first instinct, after the allegations came to light, was to show concern for the image of the town and the potential economic impacts.”
“How are we even going to begin to address the issue of racism if the leadership can’t admit it exists?” Coon Come asked at the time. “Radical action needed to be taken to get the leadership of Val-d’Or to wake up and admit the real problem. It is only by naming it and facing it that we can then attack it.”
But “Val-d’Or has clearly done this,” the Grand Chief said Dec. 15, and announced an end to efforts to boycott economic activities there.
“The Cree leadership will no longer be discouraging the organization of events in Val-d’Or.”
Coon Come and Val-d’Or mayor Pierre Corbeil went several steps further, revealing a “reconciliation and collaboration” agreement between Val-d’Or, the CNG and the communities of Lac Simon, Kitcisakik and Abitibiwinni.
The “Val-d’Or Declaration” sets out an agreement to:
- “Seal our reconciliation and lasting and equitable collaboration;
- “Work at improving relations between our communities and members;
- “Implement the necessary means to promote coexistence immune to violence, racism and discrimination;
- “Promote mutually profitable cultural, social and economic exchanges;
- “Mobilize our respective community members, citizens, enterprises, organizations and institutions with a view to achieving the objectives of the present Declaration;
- “Invite the Quebec and Canadian governments to adhere to and promote the objectives of the present Declaration;
- “Engage to the deployment of a Quebec-wide movement promoting membership to the Canadian Coalition of Municipalities against Racism and discrimination.”
The declaration follows closely on the heels of two motions from city council. The first approved joining the Canadian Coalition of Municipalities Against Racism and Discrimination. The second supported demands by First Nations leaders that Quebec create a provincial inquiry into discrimination and abuse of Indigenous women by public security forces and the judicial administration.
The second resolution, Coon Come told a news conference, “is one of the most important actions of the city.” It’s the only way, he argued, “that we will get a true understanding of how deep the problem runs and where we are going to have to work very hard to root out and attack the cancerous discrimination that keeps us separated.”
Compounding the pain
With Corbeil by his side, Coon Come didn’t mince words over his initial anger with the city’s first reaction to the Enquête report. “On October 27, I came here to take issue with the fact that the leadership of Val-d’Or, like many Quebec leaders who continue to do so today, minimized and denied the plight of First Nations women in their communities,” he said.
“When you have brave women coming forward with little hope of getting justice in the criminal justice system because their cases are too old or because they are not as credible as those they accuse, it is unacceptable a leader would compound their pain by denying that these abuses even exist or minimizing what has happened to them.”
Since then, however, the Grand Chief said the city has made great strides. “The Cree leadership and members of our staff have had many difficult and, at times, emotional meetings with the leadership of Val-d’Or. Through these difficult exchanges, we are now on the same page,” he said.
“I am not saying that all our problems are solved. I am not saying that no First Nations women will ever be abused again in Val-d’Or. What I am saying – what we are saying – is that this is our problem and together we will fight it.
Coon Come emphasized that the issue many more communities in Quebec than simply Val-d’Or. “Discussions with fellow chiefs from different regions of the province, like Sept-Îles or Three-Rivers, are telling of how widespread the problem truly is.”
But Coon Come said Val-d’Or has regained his respect and even surpassed expectations by taking “real steps toward fighting discrimination and intolerance.”
Among the measures he cited were administrative efforts by the city to identify and address discrimination against visible minorities, cultural sensitivity training for leadership and management staff, and convoking local business and community groups to discuss how they can contribute to the fight against bias and inequity.
City in “listening mode”
Abitibiwinni Chief David Kistabish said that signing the Declaration was an expression of his 600-member community’s desire to “maintain harmonious relations with each of the surrounding communities, Native or otherwise. Now that the boil has been lanced, the time for reconciliation has come and we must work together in order to end racism, violence and discrimination.”
Mayor Corbeil told the Nation that the city is in an active “listening mode” and that he is “very happy to see the opening and that together we are proposing different actions to improve our collective well-being.”
He said Coon Come “has recognized that the city of Val-d’Or has done its homework,” and that the Declaration is evidence of unprecedented collaboration between Native and settler communities.
“I am very happy and deeply touched by this reconciliation and collaboration event that I would qualify as historic,” Corbeil told the news conference. “This Declaration marks a new beginning, and I emphasize the term ‘new beginning,’ because it is not an end in itself.”
Although his city is at the centre of the storm, Corbeil told the Nation that the local conflict has broader implications. Echoing Coon Come, he said that “what has to be kept in mind is that, yes, the situation came to the forefront in Val-d’Or, but it’s not a problem that’s unique to Val-d’Or.” The silver lining, he added, is that “the solutions or the road to solutions started here.”
The initiatives announced this week are “a precursor to something new,” Corbeil added, and he hopes they will serve as a model in other communities to address endemic racism and discrimination.