Val-d’Or Mayor Pierre Corbeil says the city is working to improve the safety of its Aboriginal residents following the bombshell allegations of abuse by local Sûreté du Québec (SQ) officers against Aboriginal women. He said he is working in concert with the Grand Council and MP Romeo Saganash to improve services and push for an impartial provincial inquiry into the allegations.

The determination follows the October announcement that the Cree Nation Government would suspend activities and events in Val-d’Or. The boycott represents a major blow to the local economy. The cancellation of the upcoming annual hockey and broomball tournament alone is said to represent an estimated $4 million hit.

Corbeil said increased funding for social services aimed at Aboriginal people represent a step in the right direction. The provincial government has promised $6.1-million in funding for the Val-d’Or Native Friendship Centre, the Willie’s Place drop-in centre and a land-based healing program called Kinawit. He is also hopeful that social workers assigned to work with Val-d’Or SQ officers will have a positive impact.

Corbeil said now is a time for “self reflection” for some business owners and the SQ, who need to rethink their relations with Aboriginal clients. As for the Cree boycott, he said getting rid of it is “not a priority” at this point. The focus, Corbeil said, is on reducing discrimination and racism and making Val-d’Or safer for Aboriginal residents and visitors.

In an interview that appeared in an earlier issue of the Nation, Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come said Corbeil was partially to blame for the boycott, which was unanimously supported by Grand Council members. “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 of the allegations on the town’s revenues,” said Coon Come.

Corbeil did not want to address Coon Come’s remarks and said his first priority upon hearing them was to make sure the women who came forward were safe. Corbeil stated that between 2,000 and 3,000 Indigenous people live in Val-d’Or, that they run businesses and play hockey and are represented at all levels in community.

“We need to reestablish the climate of confidence. It’s not easy or spontaneous. But we have to continue working on it.”

Corbeil does not, however, believe racism is systemic in his city. He said, rather, that it is an issue on an individual level.

David Kistabish, Chief of the Abitibiwinni First Nation, said he is happy with the media attention the allegations garnered, and is hopeful that there will be real change in Val-d’Or. Abitibiwinni is part of the Algonquin Nation and the majority of members live in Pikogan, located only an hour northeast of Val-d’Or. Many of the women alleging police mistreatment are Algonquin.

Kistabish, however, feels racism in Val-d’Or is indeed systemic. He said this is apparent whenever Aboriginal people walk into Val-d’Or stores.

“When Natives shop in Val-d’Or, business owners are constantly watching us,” he said. “They think we will rob them.”

Marcel Jolicour, the president of the Val-d’Or Chamber of Commerce, declined an interview, saying that the issue is very “sensitive” and that he would prefer to talk in a few weeks after discussions with his members.

Kistabish said the Cree economic boycott is a good pressure tactic, and pointed out that Algonquins have passed a similar resolution. He added that he would like to see Aboriginal officers join the SQ’s Val-d’Or detachment, since they would have a better understanding of the issues facing the town’s Aboriginal community.

Mayor Pierre Corbeil

Mayor Pierre Corbeil

Chief David Kistabish

Chief David Kistabish