The media frenzy surrounding Premier Philippe Couillard’s meeting and press conference with several chiefs of the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador (AFNQL) in Montreal November 4 spoke volumes about the urgency – and opportunity – to repair relations between First Nations and the provincial police in the wake of the crisis in Val-d’Or.
The AFNQL – and, in particular, Cree Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come – were keenly disappointed Couillard rejected, for the moment, a provincial judicial inquiry into allegations of abuse and exploitation by Sûreté du Québec (SQ) officers against marginalized Aboriginal women in Val-d’Or. As well, there was grumbling over the way an independent observer – Université Laval Professor Fannie Lafontaine, a former human rights officer with the UN High Commission for Human Rights – was appointed to oversee the Montreal police investigation of eight Val-d’Or police officers.
Nonetheless, the chiefs acknowledged several small but concrete gestures and Couillard’s apparent sincerity in wanting to resolve the crisis of confidence in Quebec’s security forces.
“We will always denounce injustice, from whomever it comes,” Couillard told a room packed with reporters. “If someone has something to say, she can feel safe to say what she needs to say. Our objective is to protect the women who have come forward and who may be coming forward.”
Couillard announced $6.1 million in funding for more social workers, housing for the homeless and expanded programs at the Val-d’Or Native Friendship Centre. It’s not a large sum, but at a time the Couillard government is cutting back on core services across the board and provoking protests and strikes throughout Quebec, some chiefs welcomed the news.
“I’m happy about the meeting, Mr. Couillard really wants to give us a helping hand,” said Adrienne Anichinapéo, Chief of the Council of the Anicinapek of Kitcisakik. Noting that her small, unrecognized Algonquin community of 350 people lacks even electricity and running water, she said living conditions must be addressed so that vulnerable women will be less likely to leave for the questionable comforts of Val-d’Or or elsewhere.
“What we want are concrete things to improve the situation, and that justice be delivered for First Nations women,” Anichinapéo insisted. “We certainly don’t want a report that will be left on the shelf.”
Likewise, the meeting was encouraging for Lac Simon Chief Salomé McKenzie, whose community, only a half-hour east of Val-d’Or, felt the biggest impact of the explosive revelations in Radio-Canada’s Enquête program.
“It hasn’t been easy for us since the Enquête report,” said McKenzie. “It’s only the beginning and we thank the premier for his openness. But first, we need security for these women. We need to tell them we won’t forget you. We are standing with you.”
AFNQL Chief Ghislain Picard suggested that more cases of abuse might soon be made public. “We must keep in mind the atmosphere that victims are looking at now,” he warned, however. “We must create a climate of confidence. The reality today is that women who appeared on the Enquête episode are being made to feel guilty that they came forward to tell their story. This must change.”
Picard also denounced deeply ingrained prejudices against Aboriginals in Quebec’s provincial police force. “There seems to be, inside the SQ, a culture that expresses itself differently when it comes to our people, a system of racial profiling,” he said.
Grand Chief Coon Come did not mince words in this regard. “We need to address racism and discrimination,” he bluntly told reporters. “I’m willing to look for solutions and work with municipalities, but it will not work if you cannot admit there is racism. It will not work if you try to save face. We have to start. And not just in Val-d’Or.”
This is why Coon Come was the chief proponent of an independent judicial inquiry into the Val-d’Or allegations and the way police forces deal with Aboriginal communities in Quebec. In an interview, he said he welcomed Couillard’s initiatives and the criminal investigation.
“We need to send a message to women that we are behind you, we believe you and that we’re going to put pressure on the government to ensure that there’s an investigation,” he said. “At the same time we want it to be independent and that’s why we asked for an observer. We did suggest the name of Fannie Lafontaine, as well as others. But we left it up to Quebec to make the final decision.”
But Coon Come does not accept Couillard’s reluctance to call an inquiry. The premier told the press conference that he does not want to step on the toes of newly elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who he expects will soon call a national inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women.
“We’ll wait for the mandate of the federal commission,” said Couillard. “Then we will start meeting and decide what the possible mandate of a provincial inquiry could be, so that we can be ready.”
Coon Come argued that approach wouldn’t help with the current situation in Quebec.
“The call for a national inquiry only deals with missing and murdered women – it does not deal with living women who personally have stories about how they were physically and sexually abused by SQ officers,” he insisted. “That’s why we are pushing for a provincial judicial inquiry that is provided for under the Act governing commissions of public inquiry. That’s why I was disappointed. I understand the difficulty because everyone wants to know the mandate of a national inquiry. But we want to deal with issues right away.”
Coon Come emphasized that only a judicial inquiry has the power to subpoena witnesses to testify under oath. Anything less wouldn’t be sufficient.
“We’re talking about a police force that’s out of control,” he told the Nation. “A police force that provides alcohol to women, doing starlight tours, providing cocaine, asking for sexual favours. And now they’re doing their own petition? They’re totally out of control.
“They’re already employees of the government of Quebec. I know they have a powerful union. But I certainly think everyone would agree, we need to address the police issues here. We need to improve the relations that are rapidly deteriorating between First Nations and the SQ.”