Twenty five years ago this month, a 17-year-old Cree man named Neil Stonechild was picked up by Saskatoon police, driven out to the edge of the city, and left there. Temperatures were below minus 25ºC, and Stonechild’s frozen body, wearing a light jacket and one shoe, was later found in a field.
His was one of five deaths between 1990 and 2000 allegedly connected with the Saskatoon Police Service practice of “starlight tours” – picking up Aboriginal people who were drunk and/or disorderly, driving them out of town, and abandoning them in the cold. During a 2003 inquest into the freezing deaths, Saskatoon’s police chief admitted that the practice had a history that stretched back into the mid-1970s.
Public reaction to Stonechild’s death and revelations about the “starlight tours” led to firings of officers all the way up to the Chief of Police. Yet whisperings about other forms of “starlight tours” have continued in communities a long way from Saskatoon.
In Val-d’Or, Indigenous women on the street had been warning one another for nearly 20 years that the practice was alive and well, but with an ugly twist. As the province learned October 22 during an episode of Radio-Canada’s investigative program Enquête, a series of poor and homeless Indigenous women from Val-d’Or claim that, at various times over the past 20 years, they were picked up for being drunk by Sûreté du Québec (SQ) officers and driven to the woods outside of town. There, they claim, they were in some cases abandoned, beaten or sexually assaulted. Some say they were paid or given alcohol or drugs to perform sex acts with police officers.
One of the women, Bianca Moushoun, told Enqûete, “Instead of taking me to the police station, they took me some place else. They’d ask me, ‘Do you want some beer?’ They had some in their trunk. They’d give me one, then another, then another. And we’d drive into the little roads here, and stop by the side. That’s where they’d ask me to give them a blowjob. […] Pretty much every girl who was doing prostitution in Val-d’Or had that happen to them. Above all, Native girls.”
Moushoun said that, in all, seven members of the SQ had driven her outside of town and paid her for sex, usually two at a time.
“They’d pay $200, $100 for the service, and $100 to keep me quiet,” she said. “Sometimes they paid in coke, sometimes they paid in money. Sometimes it was both.”
In May, several women lodged official complaints with the SQ, which tasked its internal affairs department to investigate while the accused officers remained on patrol. Following the airing of the episode of Enquête, however, SQ Director General Martin Prud’homme requested the investigation be handed over to Montreal’s police force (the SPVM), and suspended eight officers with pay. (The SPVM would not comment on their ongoing investigation, but they encourage anyone with information relating to the allegations of abuse by SQ officers to call 1-844-615-3118 to speak with investigators.)
The Enquête story provoked a shock among Quebec’s political elite. Public Security Minister Lise Thériault, though first informed of the allegations last May 15 in a letter sent by Val-d’Or Native Friendship Centre director Edith Cloutier, held an emotional press conference in which she broke down in tears. Thériault brought in Captain Ginette Séguin to replace Captain Jean-Pierre Pelletier as director of the Val-d’Or detachment – and shortly after, announced she would be taking six weeks of stress leave.
On the weekend of October 24-25, the entire staff of the SQ’s Val-d’Or detachment called in sick to protest what they claimed was a lack of support from elected leaders. This did not worry SQ Director General Prud’homme, who told a press conference that there was no crisis, and that, “It will take some time to pass through this period. I’m not worried: our police officers will gradually come back to work.”
On October 26, the union representing Quebec’s 5400 provincial police officers issued a press release arguing the problem resides with First Nations communities, not the SQ. ”This crisis arises above all else [from] a societal problem with Native nations, which live in great difficulties on a national scale,” said Association des policiers provinciaux du Québec (APPQ) president Pierre Veilleux. “It would be a shame that concerned police officers become the scapegoats for problems that largely exceed their functions.”
Veilleux also demanded the Public Security Ministry publicly acknowledge that SQ officers “do an excellent job in a sometimes strained and difficult atmosphere in their relations with the Native community.”
The Grand Chief’s Position
Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come was unrestrained in his response to these comments, telling the Nation they were “appalling.”
“The allegations are about specific abuses committed by specific individuals of the SQ against specific Cree and Algonquin women. There are accusations of rape – how does a rapist become a scapegoat? There are accusations of assault – how does an assailant become a scapegoat? There are accusations of supplying drugs and alcohol – how does a drug dealer or bootlegger become a scapegoat? Wanting justice is not searching out a scapegoat.”
The Grand Chief was equally forceful in his response to comments by Premier Philippe Couillard to the Montreal Gazette that the alleged assaults were “a tragic symptom” of the dysfunction caused by the Indian Act, and that the Indian Act must be reformed.
“If it has been proven that SQ officers in the Val-d’Or area took advantage of their authority to abuse Cree and Algonquin women it has nothing to do with the Indian Act,” Coon Come said. “The SQ officers are not governed by the Indian Act and there is nothing in the Indian Act that permits SQ officers to violate their professional codes of conduct, their ethical standards, and their basic standards of decency. If poverty and poor living conditions make Aboriginal women vulnerable, then it is precisely people like SQ officers who should be protecting them from potential abuse, not [becoming] perpetrators of abuse.”
Coon Come said he believed Couillard’s comments were ultimately an attempt to shift blame.
“It is wrong to make such comments before having stated how we will address the very specific situation before us,” he said. “Then and only then can we begin the dialogue on matters like the Indian Act and the legacy of colonization, which leaves one community at the mercy of the other.”
A National or Provincial Inquiry?
Couillard also dismissed, for the moment, provincial public inquiry in favour of waiting for the national Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women inquiry that recently sworn-in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had pledged to call. “We will see what the federal government puts in place because we won’t have two series of hearings on the same subject running at the same time,” Couillard explained.
To Sharon Hunter, Community Relations Advisor for the Val-d’Or Native Friendship Centre, Couillard is simply buying time.
“For something that’s going on in his province and his jurisdiction – to not have a stronger position than that?” she exclaimed. “I’m wondering to what degree he felt like he was caught with his pants down. Edith [Cloutier] wrote letters back in May to the Minister of Public Security, and she also wrote to [Aboriginal Affairs Minister] Geoffrey Kelley. It should have been at their level.”
Minister Kelley responded, “Over the summer people from my office spoke with Edith Cloutier on several occasions. Obviously I made sure that my colleague, the Minister of Public Security, got a copy of the letter. But [Aboriginal Affairs] doesn’t have a power to investigate. There are very serious allegations in the letter, but between that and what we saw on television… there was a wide gap, and I was quite shocked.”
NDP MP Romeo Saganash also wants to see the provincial government call a public inquiry.
“The government of Quebec has a major role to play here,” he told the Nation. “We left them off the hook for the time being. An independent public inquiry is something that we need to pursue. Having a police corps investigate another police corps is never the solution for the public. There has been public pressure over the years to change that. I went through the Human Rights Watch report on the Highway of Tears, and they’re saying the same thing, [as are] Amnesty International.”
Grand Chief Coon Come is categorical in this regard.
“There is an urgency to protect and support the victims,” he emphasized. “It’s also important to conduct a provincial judicial investigation which will allow us to get to the bottom of what happened to women who are the victims of police abuse. We do not want a political process, and we do not want to limit ourselves to the national inquiry that the federal government will implement, which concerns the fate of murdered or missing women. We will pursue the inquiry from here on and are willing to work with Quebec.”
Suspension of Activities
The immediate response of Cree leadership was to suspend Cree Nation Government activities and events in Val-d’Or, including the annual hockey and broomball tournament that brings $4 million to the Val-d’Or economy. As well, CNG departments are being told to avoid purchasing materials and services (with the exception of professional services) from Val-d’Or businesses.
Coon Come said the decision was partly motivated by what he felt was a lack of concern for the safety and well-being of Crees in statements by Val-d’Or Mayor Pierre Corbeil. He told the National Post October 26 that, “There are people who say straightaway, ‘It’s about time this came out,’ and there are others who say, ‘Is it really that big a deal?’”
In the face of a threatened boycott, Corbeil added, “I question the pertinence of punishing a community for the actions of individuals.”
The Grand Chief said this attitude added force to the boycott – which was, he underlined, decided by consensus among Cree leaders and announced to Corbeil privately.
“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. “I found this abhorrent. We can only assume that this is indicative of a perception of Crees and Algonquins in Val-d’Or that views us primarily as potential sources of revenue. If the mayor cannot stand with us in support of our women in this horrifying situation, then perhaps his town should not benefit from our commercial activities until such time as he has a change of heart and decides to do the right thing.”
Coon Come said the motivation of all parties should be concern for the well-being of Indigenous women, particularly those who braved possible reprisals by making these allegations public.
“Until such a time that serious efforts and initiatives have been put in place to make a shift in attitudes toward our Cree and Algonquin people living in the Val-d’Or area, so that people do not feel vulnerable and fearful, we will withhold our institutional activities scheduled to take place in Val-d’Or – and until we feel that we are valued, not just for our ability to bring commercial revenues to Val-d’Or. We need to send a strong message that our presence in Val-d’Or should never be taken for granted and that there needs to be a fundamental shift in how we are viewed and how we are treated.”
Reiterating a memo sent to Cree entities, Coon Come said that there was no blanket boycott of Val-d’Or businesses, and that individual Crees were free to go and shop where they pleased.
But Coon Come argued that any attempts at a municipal level to downplay the seriousness of the situation in Val-d’Or essentially gave the impression that nothing was wrong. “How are we are going to even begin to address the issue of racism if the leadership can’t admit it exists?” he asked. “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.”
The Impact in Val-d’Or
Romeo Saganash understands the reasoning behind such thinking, but because his constituents are also those affected by the withdrawal of CNG business, he is divided.
“The city of Val-d’Or has absolutely no role with the SQ,” Saganash said. “That’s the government of Quebec’s responsibility. Val-d’Or cannot do anything with the SQ, and people seem to forget that.”
Robert Larivière, CEO of the Forestel Hotel in Val-d’Or, said he initially viewed the story as non-political. “They’re talking about allegations about the SQ. We, in the commercial community, on the other hand, we just do business,” he said.
Larivière worried that a boycott would affect relations between Crees and Val-d’Or businesses in the long run. “The boycott will cost the whole population, but the communities as well, it will cost. Are they going to come back here to spend their money? When it’s been years they’ve been coming to the same place, the order to not come back to Val-d’Or – I don’t understand that.”
Larivière said he visited the Friendship Centre to educate himself after the allegations became public. He now believes non-Native people have a lot to learn about the situation by listening and building bridges with their Native neighbours.
“That’s why it’s important to get all of these people around a table to discuss the issue, to talk about the realities from one to another and to better grasp how to arrive at solutions,” Larivière said. “I hope that politicians and First Nations can really understand the challenges of this situation. We understand that the acts that were reported to Enqûete that are in question – it’s much bigger than that. It’s in our best interests to listen.”
Saganash says he is satisfied that Mayor Corbeil has expressed support for the alleged victims. But he does not yet believe that support is shared widely among some elements of the Val-d’Or business community.
“The Chamber of Commerce has been complaining about the economic impact of any boycott by Crees,” said Saganash, “But besides wanting our money, what is the Chamber of Commerce offering in return? Are they offering sessions with their members, to educate them about Aboriginal rights and the Cree and Aboriginal economic impact in Val-d’Or? No. Are they offering to teach basic Cree to their members, so that they can welcome Crees and Algonquins in their shops?”
Such concrete steps, Saganash said, can build lasting respectwhile also contributing to cross-cultural understanding.
The Widening Rift
Some say that relations between the communities in Val-d’Or are now more strained thanever. Despite that, Sharon Hunter says that there have always been many residents who support Native causes and concerns.
“As a Native person and a Native woman,” she said, “I feel the stares and contempt. There are people who, as soon as you’re in a restaurant, start to whisper. I think the racists are a minority, but a very loud one. There’s always that percentage that feels invaded by the Native presence in Val-d’Or. I’m curious to know to what degree they feel even more convinced of their racism because these allegations are from Native women, who are vulnerable and live in poverty, who live with addictions and probably prostitution. The degree of their credibility diminishes with each layer of social condemnation.”
Grand Chief Coon Come also said there were many Valdoriens who “shared our shock and horror at the allegations and who stand with us in demanding an investigation into the truth.” However, he expressed concern about public petitions supporting the SQ in advance of any investigation.
“This to me means that some people in Val-d’Or have already made up their minds to disregard, discredit or blame the victims,” he said. “This is unfortunate and these people give the entire town a bad name. Such petitions say that Indigenous lives do not matter nearly as much as the reputations of possible perpetrators.”
Laurent Arel, the SQ union’s public relations director, emphasized that the eight officers subject to complaints are currently being investigated for abuse of power and assault, not for sexual misconduct. (Of the official complaints received so far, the two accusations of sexual assault concerned an officer who has since died.)
Hearing this, Hunter noted, “That’s the difference between accusations and complaints. There are accusations, but then there’s complaints that are in the process of being [investigated] and may eventually lead to charges. We’re at the initial stage.”
In the Enquête story, SQ spokesperson Martine Asselin acknowledged that though they were investigating the allegations of sexual assault, they had not received any formal complaints alleging demands of sexual favours, or complaints by women of being taken outside of town and abandoned.
But for Hunter, this situation goes deeper than the recent allegations. She says discussion at the Friendship Centre has now turned to the issue of institutionalized racism, and how racist ideas are reproduced in the structure of organizations like police forces and other government bodies.
This was an idea forcefully given voice by Kahnawake Grand Chief Joe Norton, who participated in the October 27 gathering of 40-some AFNQL Chiefs and delegates in Val-d’Or.
Norton told a press conference that institutionalized racism causes these situations. “The racism that says you can do what you damn well please to Native people and you can get away with it,” he said. “The government itself and the police union will allow you to get away with it, regardless of how blatant the issues are. There’s very little that shocks me, but this has. If it can happen here, it can happen anywhere. In my discussions with First Nations leaders across Canada, it has become abundantly clear that it is happening all over the place.”
The Situation on the Ground
Many of the women involved in the Enquête story were familiar to the executive director of La Piaule, Val-d’Or’s homeless shelter. Stéphane Grenier said that outsiders might not understand the volatility of the situation.
“The majority of the allegations were about policemen taking people out of town because they were too drunk and they had no place to put them,” he said. Grenier acknowledged that a lack of a day-centre for homeless people meant more people drinking in the streets, especially during cold periods. But, “Police of Val-d’Or are under pressure. If somebody is drunk and in the street, they can’t let them be on the street, or in stores, or in the doorways of stores, and they can’t bring them to the park.”
In the absence of a regular day-centre, Grenier said, their only option is to take intoxicated homeless people to jail.
“One of the policemen who has been suspended told me a few months ago that day after day he had to put a completely drunk Aboriginal in a cell, seven days a week,” Grenier told the Nation. “He was saying it was very hard to do that. He had the impression he worked for nothing. He said, ‘Day after day, they’re shouting at me that I’m a bad person, I’m disrespectful. But I have to do my job.’”
Nonetheless, Grenier said that it’s absolutely unacceptable for police to drive homeless people out of town and leave them there. “They should bring them here to the shelter, or put them in a cell. Even if they have to do the same thing every day with the same person, they should still do that!”
He blames the chronic underfunding of homeless initiatives for making the situation worse. Willie’s Place, the homeless day-centre operated by the Friendship Centre, is now open in the morning while it finishes renovations to its new site. Grenier says La Piaule can only afford to be open from 10 pm to 8 am. When those who have spent the night at La Piaule leave the shelter in the morning, Grenier said, they begin to drink.
“By 12 o’clock most are already drunk,” he explained. “We accept them to eat at lunchtime if they are not too drunk. We give them some food. But after that, they continue to drink in the afternoon, and they become a problem for people in the street. They’re too drunk. When they come back to the shelter at 10 pm, we often have to wash their clothes because they have urine or vomit on them.”
Grenier, a professor of Social Work at Université du Québec en Abitibi-Témiscamingue, says studies show that daytime drop-in centres lower drinking and drug use among homeless communities.
“They can leave the shelter and drink a beer, but they’re more likely to stop there and have a coffee or something to eat,” he said. “In the afternoon, they’ll come to La Piaule and be less drunk. They’ll cause less trouble to the population, and they’ll drink less if we can intervene.”
Ideally, said Grenier, funding would be available to open the night shelter earlier, at 7 pm rather than 10 pm. At the moment, however funding is decreasing in the Couillard government’s austerity campaign. A full-time social worker is now only working three days a week.
“Three days a week is not enough for us! She’s the only one working with homeless people – but she has three bosses! It seems like they have more bosses and directors in this big organization than they had before!”
As the Nation went to press, the AFNQL was finishing its meeting with Premier Couillard. Speaking after that meeting, Aboriginal Affairs Minister Geoffrey Kelley told the Nation that, for now, he felt that it was best to pursue a national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women.
A national inquiry “obviously will take us into some examination of how the police handle these cases,” said Kelley. “What the premier said to the various chiefs today was, ‘Is it possible the federal government could include in its mandate some question about how we could improve relations between various police forces and FN communities?’”
Kelley said Couillard didn’t rule out a Quebec-based public inquiry, but that he wants to work first with the federal government on the mandate for a national inquiry.
“Then we’ll look at it,” said Kelley. “In the meantime we want to set up a form of a task force that will have First Nations participation, the key government ministries involved – Justice, Public Security, Native Affairs of course, and perhaps Social Services – to prepare the way for a high-level political meeting on this question.”
For his part, Saganash looks to history for a useful lesson.
“One of the things I’ve suggested is that Quebec should revisit the 1985 National Assembly resolution recognizing Aboriginal people as nations,” Saganash explained.
He noted that in signing the Paix des Braves with the Crees, Quebec was able to put to rest nearly three decades of hostility. That example might be a road map for better relationships with other Indigenous communities as well.
“We have agreements and so do the Inuit, but what do we do with the other Nations?” Saganash said. “We’re still developing resource development on the traditional lands of the Innu, of the Atikamekw, of the Algonquin. What are we doing about that? What can we learn from the experiences of the last 30 years?”