A month has passed since the Radio-Canada program Enqûete aired stunning allegations of abuse by SQ officers against Aboriginal women in Val-d’Or. Though the initial upheaval has passed, discussions about the matter among politicians are continuing. As this issue of the Nation goes to press, the Chiefs of the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador (AFNQL) were meeting in Odanak to follow up on a November 4 meeting with Premier Philippe Couillard.
Measures announced then included $6.1-million in government funding for the Val-d’Or Native Friendship Centre, Willie’s Place and the Kinawit land-based healing program. The premier also ordered that SQ patrol cars in the community of Val-d’Or have cameras installed, and that “social workers will be made available to offer professional support to police officers” at the Val-d’Or detachment.
A three-party “working platform” consisting of AFNQL leaders and Quebec and federal government officials, and federal government representatives was also established to examine Quebec police practices, with particular attention to relations with Indigenous people. The goal of this partnership is to increase trust between Indigenous people and Quebec police officers, as well as improving response to violence against Aboriginal women and girls.
Finally, Couillard appointed Université Laval Professor Fannie Lafontaine as an independent overseer of the Montreal police investigation of the eight SQ officers facing allegations.
Reflecting on the meeting, however, Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come underlined that discussions of politics should not divert public attention from the experiences of the alleged victims.
“We must remember and keep our focus on the women who are at the centre of this crisis and allow for the investigation of these cases to move forward,” he told the Nation. “There is a duty to bring justice to these women who bravely came forward with their story.”
For that reason, Coon Come said, he joined in the call for a provincial inquiry into the allegations against the SQ. “The more you speak with other Chiefs, families of disappeared women, social workers on the ground, the more the demand for justice is loud and clear,” he said.
The Grand Chief applauded Couillard’s willingness to participate in a national inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women. However, he took issue with Couillard’s demand that the province wait to receive the results of that inquiry before considering its own inquiry into alleged police abuses.
“The national inquiry will be focused on the missing and murdered women,” Coon Come said. “What about the Indigenous women, and men, who suffer injustices at the hands of those who have taken oath to protect them? Those who are battered, sexually assaulted, taken for a starlight tour in the dead of winter – who will speak for them if they are not missing or murdered?”
Ontario and Manitoba, Coon Come reasoned, responded to allegations of police abuse with provincial judicial inquiries of their own.
“These provinces understood that a serious examination of the relationship between the province’s authorities and First Nations people was crucial to building better relationships,” he said. “Quebec should not wait to have a Neil Stonechild case of its own before it takes this difficult reality seriously.”
The funding boost for Willie’s Place and the Kinawat project, as well the Kitajé social housing project and other resource for psychological, medical, and judicial services for women in need was, Coon Come said, the product of the government being “quick to apply a financial gauze to the wound.”
In order to make Val-d’Or and the rest of the province a safer place for Aboriginal women and Natives, however, a deeper understanding is urgently required.
“What happened in Val-d’Or could have happened to any town with similar demographics,” Coon Come stated. “Municipalities and provinces have to make the effort to self-examine their relationship with First Nations people. How and why was a situation, like the one we are now reeling from in Val-d’Or, allowed to go on for so long? How is it possible that nobody, be it at the municipal or provincial levels, felt it necessary to seriously explore the allegations brought to light in May by the women who came forward during the filming of Enquête’s investigative program?”
The Grand Chief closed by reminding the Cree Nation that this story began with the disappearance of Washaw-Sibi’s Sindy Ruperthouse, who has now been missing for over 18 months.
“Until Quebec can answer these questions we shall continue to pursue the provincial judicial inquiry,” he said. “In the meantime, we will continue working with Quebec as we always have, but there are many questions that will remain unanswered if we continue applying the same solutions. There is a cycle of violence that must be broken.”