Racism against Indigenous people based on skin colour, language, chiefs tell Quebec inquiry

First Nations leaders testifying at the Quebec inquiry into the treatment of Indigenous people say they face discrimination because of the colour of their skin — or because French is their second or third language.

'Still today, we're dealing with discrimination, and this needs to stop,' Algonquin leader testifies

Verna Polson, chief of Kebaowek First Nation and grand chief of the Algonquin Anishinabeg Nation Tribal Council, said relatives with lighter eyes and skin are treated better than she is in Kebaowek's neighbouring community of Temiscaming. (Viens inquiry)

Algonquin leaders who testified Tuesday at the Quebec inquiry into the treatment of Indigenous people say they face discrimination because of the colour of their skin — or because French is their second or third language.

"I was raised on a reserve all my life. I went to a French school, so I know what it's like to face discrimination because of the different colour of the skin," said Verna Polson, Grand Chief of the Algonquin Anishinabeg Nation Tribal Council.

"It's something that sticks with you for a long time."

The Algonquin people's traditional territory includes Val-d'Or, the community 500 kilometres northwest of Montreal where the Quebec inquiry, presided over by retired Superior Court Justice Jacques Viens, began holding hearings this week.

Polson, who comes from the Kebaowek First Nation (Eagle Village), near the Ontario border, said she's trying to teach her children the opposite of what she experienced: to never judge someone by how they look.  

She told the inquiry how friends and family who were "blond and blue-eyed" are treated differently — and better than her — when they venture from Kebaowek to the town of Temiscaming, 10 kilometres away.

"Still today, the 21st century, we're still dealing with discrimination, and this needs to stop," said Polson. "We're human just like the next person. We have to learn to work together, communicate, even though we speak different languages."

Retired Superior Court justice Jacques Vien, who is presiding over the inquiry, listens to testimony from AFNQL Chief Ghislain Picard on June 6. (Viens Commission)

Language barrier

The Viens inquiry is charged with finding out if and where there is systemic discrimination in public services provided by the province of Quebec to Indigenous people.

People in Kebaowek speak Algonquin and English, and Polson said obtaining government services in English is frequently a problem.

Language was also an issue in Ghislain Picard's presentation to the inquiry earlier Tuesday.

The chief of the Assembly of First Nations for Quebec and Labrador said in many First Nations communities in Quebec, English is the second language after their native tongue, and he's troubled by the number of people who have told him they are treated like second-class citizens at the hospital because of their poor command of French.

He gave the example of a woman who recently took her young daughter to an emergency room because the child's face was partially paralyzed.

Picard said she was yelled at as if she didn't speak French, because it's the woman's second language.

"Many members of our communities, without exaggerating, would consider that type of situation normal, even acceptable," Picard told Viens.

Racism sets in early

People in Abitibiwinni (Pikogan) — another of the Algonquin Anishinabeg Nation Tribal Council communities — speak Algonquin and French. 

However, Abitibiwinni Chief David Kistabash said his people still encounter prejudice.

It's not normal for a six- or seven-year-old from the city to have racist views. He's learning it somewhere.- Abitiwinni Chief David Kistabish

"We don't know where it comes from," said Kistabish. "It's not normal for a six- or seven-year-old from the city to have racist views. He's learning it somewhere."

He said Abitiwinni's open "culture" days have been successful in breaking down stereotypes.

Kistabish said the community invites schoolchildren to share a meal of wild goose, beaver and bannock once a year.
The chief of the Abitibiwinni First Nation, north of Amos, said cultural open houses for school children have helped to break down stereotypes set in childhood. (Viens inquiry)

He told the inquiry he would be curious to hear the conversations around the dinner table when the children get back home and tell their parents about their day.

"We work on the children because, unfortunately, sometimes people are already biased," he said.

The chiefs told the inquiry about other pressing issues they face: lack of electricity and water for some, a justice system blind to cultural differences, mental health services available only in French.

Policing: more resources needed

Both Polson and Kistabish highlighted the chronic underfunding of local police forces as an issue which has to be addressed.

The chief of Lac Simon, the Algonquin community closest to Val-d'Or, is expected to testify today. Policing has been a major issue there, especially after deadly shootings involving police shook the community last year.

The tripartite policing agreements between bands, the federal and provincial governments have to be renewed every three years — complicating urgent calls for more resources.

First Nations communities struggle to attract trained police officers, in part because salaries are nowhere close to those paid to officers in the Sûreté du Québec.