Attention to Val-d’Or policing problem leads to positive change for local Indigenous

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Often derided as the “Sin City of the North,” Val-d’Or has seen its share of crises over the last decade. There’s also been opportunity in the face of these challenges. Through documenting and developing programing to address the issues, the city’s Native Friendship Centre (NFC) has helped foster positive change.

According to NFC Executive Director Edith Cloutier, it was about a decade ago that a “big-city problem” became a local reality.

In the late 2000s, the city’s homeless population was growing rapidly, composed largely of Indigenous people from surrounding communities. They had come for a litany of reasons, but it became a problem for the residents of the town of 33,000 when homeless people began hanging around the city, even creating an improvised “tent city” when winter arrived.

Eventually, some began sleeping in heated bank entries housing ATMs or in doorways of businesses. Local merchants were first to voice their frustration to the city’s chamber of commerce. Initially, the Val-d’Or city hall echoed what many cities across Canada had done: ticket the homeless.

Police began issuing tickets under increasingly tenuous legal circumstances. After the amount of unpaid tickets piled up, the homeless individual would be arrested and sent to jail.

Because the NFC’s role is to work for social justice and defend the rights of Indigenous people, Cloutier felt the need to find alternatives to sending homeless people to jail simply for being homeless. They hired outreach workers to make connections with those on the streets to try and link them with social services.

“The homeless were getting ticketed for just sitting on a bench or getting picked up and dropped off in isolated areas,” said Cloutier, who was recently awarded an honorary doctorate by Concordia University for her work in service to the wellness of urban Indigenous people.

“So that became part of the whole issue of Indigenous women speaking out against sexual and physical abuse by the police. Through all of that conflict and tension and turmoil, we opened Willie’s Place.”

Chez Willie’s Place was a pilot project at that time, a day centre for the city’s homeless where they could stay warm, rest, get help and talk to someone if they wanted to. Following its creation, the mistreatment of Indigenous people in Val-d’Or became a point of national interest.

Radio-Canada’s Enquête program spoke to Indigenous women who shared stories of sexual and physical abuse at the hands of Val-d’Or police. This included “starlight tours” where police would take Indigenous men or women out of town to allegedly abuse them and leave them to find their own way back, often in the dead of winter. The issue of ticketing grew as a matter of contention.

Under pressure to act, the provincial government created a special-measures fund and suddenly the Val-d’Or Native Friendship Centre had money for projects that they had been trying to fund for years.

Fast forward to 2018 and Chez Willie’s Place now has permanent funding. A special service space to support Indigenous women called Nigan has also been funded. A housing project, Kijaté, also broke ground last June 21. Two-dozen new apartments are now housing 135 Indigenous people.

The largest cherry on the sundae, according to Cloutier, was when, at the request of the Cree Nation Government, the City of Val-d’Or became joined a UNESCO coalition of municipalities against racism. The declaration was made official when the Secretary-General of the Canadian commission of UNESCO, Sébastien Goupil, presented the certificate at the Gabriel Commanda Walk Against Racism.

While the city still has its problems, Cloutier says, they are not what they used to be.

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