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Indigenous police accused of dragging feet on child sexual abuse complaint in Quebec community

Innu woman tells Radio-Canada's Enquête Aboriginal police forces reluctant to investigate abuse allegations

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When Sylvane tried to file a police complaint last year against the chief of the small Innu community of Uashat-Maliotenam for allegedly sexually abusing her when she was a teenager, she ran into a roadblock.

"The Aboriginal police didn't want to take my complaint because they said he's the chief right now," she told Radio-Canada's investigative program, Enquête.

Sylvane — whose last name, like those of several other women interviewed for this report, CBC/Radio-Canada has agreed to conceal — alleges the abuse started in June 2000, soon after her 13th birthday, when the current chief, Mike McKenzie, was 26.

"He gave me drugs, he made me drink. But in exchange, I always had to give him sex," she told Radio-Canada.

She persisted in trying to report the alleged abuse, turning to the provincial police, who told her they couldn't intervene unless they were asked to by the local Indigenous police force. Eventually, after she got help from a lawyer, the provincial police did step in and launched an investigation.

In June 2016, charges of sexual assault and sexual touching were laid against McKenzie, with the preliminary inquiry set to begin Friday.

McKenzie maintains his innocence.

'He gave me drugs, he made me drink. But in exchange, I always had to give him sex.' - Sylvane, describing allegations she's made against current Uashat-Maliotenam Chief Mike McKenzie

When the charges were laid, the chief stepped down temporarily. But he returned to work after a two-month absence, saying he was democratically elected and felt it was important to fulfil his duties.

"What message does that send in our community?" said Lise Jourdain, a friend who reached out to Sylvane when she heard about the allegations. "Don't touch the chief, but you can touch a 12-year-old child."

Jenny, another Innu woman from the same community on Quebec's North Shore, 900 kilometres northeast of Montreal, said her five-year-old son was being abused by the teenaged son of a babysitter, beginning in 2009.

She said she complained to local police when she learned about the abuse in 2011, but the abuse continued even after police interviewed her son about his allegations. The interview was conducted by an officer with the community's Aboriginal police force in French instead of in the son's native Innu.

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Uashat-Maliotenam's police force referred all of Radio-Canada's questions having to do with their conduct to the band council. (Radio-Canada)

In all, Jenny said she made four complaints to police without result. 

After she went to police for the fourth time, Jenny took her son to hospital for an examination when police failed to do so. She said she was told the forensic rape kit done at the hospital was lost. However, Enquête learned it was transmitted to police, but it had never been sent to a Montreal lab to be tested.

No charges have been brought against the alleged abuser.

The Crown prosecutor's office reviewed the file twice and determined the law was applied as it should be, because of the "young age" of the boy, "his difficulties in describing the facts and his confusion at what happened."

Quebec's public security minister has just launched an internal ethics probe into how police handled the case.

'Politicized' police?

Many Indigenous communities in Quebec are policed by a local squad that falls under the band council's jurisdiction.

"It will always remain a local police, a politicized police force," said Maurice Tassé, a former Sûreté du Québec officer who once headed a now-defunct regional Indigenous police force before it was disbanded in 2000 due to lack of resources.

'What message does that send in our community? Don't touch the chief, but you can touch a 12-year-old child.' - Lise Jourdain, member of the Innu community of Uashat-Maliotenam

In fact, all of the questions Enqûete sent to the Uashat-Maliotenam Police Service were referred to the band council, which had promised to respond.

But the council's executive director failed to show up to two meetings with Radio-Canada journalists to respond to the allegations.

Struggling for justice amid backlash  

A third woman, Nicole, told Radio-Canada she had to wait 10 long years, some of them in self-imposed exile from her Atikamekw community, 400 kilometres north of Montreal, before she saw the man whom she accused of abusing her as a child sent to prison.

Jean-Paul Néashish, a former head of the Wemotaci First Nation Police Force, was sentenced to six years in prison last October for sexually assaulting five women over a 40-year period. He continues to maintain his innocence and calls his accusers liars.

As she waited for the case to wind through the courts, Nicole had to grapple with the belief of others in Wemotaci that she was lying.

"All that time, that's what I was struggling with. I lived in fear — full of stress and hatred of it all."

Sylvane said she faced a similar backlash.

"A lot of people bullied me on Facebook. [They wrote]: 'We don't believe her,'" Sylvane said of the months after she went public about the alleged abuse. "When I saw that, I became even more discouraged."

Another Innu woman from Uashat-Maliotenam, Danielle St-Onge, says she witnessed last fall just how dismissive the wider Indigenous community was of her experience as a victim of childhood sexual abuse.

award-leo-st-onge

This award was given to Léo St-Onge by a First Nations suicide prevention group two months after he pleaded guilty to gross indecency against a minor in a case brought forward by his niece. (Radio-Canada)

Her uncle, Léo St-Onge, pleaded guilty to gross indecency against a minor last summer. Despite his guilty plea, he maintained his innocence, saying he acted on the recommendation of his lawyer. He was given a conditional discharge, however, his name now appears on the sexual offenders registry.

Two months after he pleaded guilty, St-Onge was honoured by an Aboriginal suicide prevention group for his work helping women, a move that shocked his 54-year-old niece.

"He was commended, and I was discredited," Danielle St-Onge said of the pain she felt when she found out her uncle had been honoured.

The organization later apologized and rescinded the award.

Enqûete will air its full report, Le cercle vicieux, on Radio-Canada Thursday at 9 p.m. ET

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