'White judge, white lawyer': Quebec inquiry into discrimination lacks Indigenous voices, critics say

The Quebec inquiry tasked with investigating discrimination is being criticized for its own lack of representation, as it examines how Indigenous people are treated by provincial services.

Val-d'Or inquiry tasked with rebuilding trust with Indigenous communities in wake of police abuse allegations

Mohawk elder Sedalia Fazio makes her opening statement at Quebec's inquiry into the treatment of Indigenous people, on Monday, February 12, in Montreal. The head of the inquiry, Jacques Viens, to her right, is not Indigenous. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

The Quebec inquiry tasked with investigating discrimination is being criticized for its own lack of representation, as it examines how Indigenous people are treated by provincial services.

The Viens commission — named after its chair, Jacques Viens — was created by the Quebec government in 2016  in response to public pressure after prosecutors decided not to lay charges against six provincial police officers accused of sexually abusing Indigenous women in Val-d'Or, a city about 525 kilometres northwest of Montreal.

When Premier Philippe Couillard announced the inquiry, he said there was a "need to act rapidly to restore the relationship of trust broken since the events in Val-d'Or."

You're walking into this sterile environment that is not welcoming.- Nakuset , director, Native Women's Shelter of Montreal

The inquiry, which is wrapping up its 16th week of hearings, has been mandated to look into treatment of Indigenous people by six specific government institutions: police services, corrections, legal services, the health system, social services and youth protection.

One Indigenous advocate who testified before the commission last month said she was struck by the absence of Indigenous people heading up the inquiry.

"You're walking into this sterile environment that is not welcoming," said Nakuset, director of the Native Women's Shelter of Montreal who goes by just the one name. "You have this white judge and then you have a white lawyer on your side who's proceeding."

Viens, a retired Quebec Superior Court judge, spent 25 years of his career in the judiciary district of Abitibi and also practised law in Cree and Inuit communities. (Vincent Desjardins/Radio-Canada)

"There are some people [with the commission] that are Indigenous. [But] I don't remember seeing them there. They're not sitting in front."

There are 18 Indigenous staffers — roughly 21 per cent of the commission's members — who serve on various teams, including Aboriginal relations, research, pscyhosocial support, wellness and communications. 

None of them are part of the legal department. 

Indigenous lawyers were sought

Inquiry head Viens is also not Indigenous, though the retired Quebec Superior Court judge spent 25 years of his career in the judiciary district of Abitibi, which encompasses Val-d'Or, and also practised law in Cree and Inuit communities. 

Commission chief counsel Christian Leblanc said attempts were made to recruit Indigenous lawyers, but many were not willing to relocate to Val-d'Or, the base of operations for the commission.

Nakuset, a vocal Indigenous advocate in Quebec and the director of the Native Women's Shelter of Montreal, testified before the commission in February. (Commission on relations between Indigenous peoples and specific public services in Quebec)

He said it was difficult to find experienced lawyers — Indigenous or non-Indigenous — who were willing to interrupt their lives and careers for the duration of the inquiry.

"You have to understand, to know that we did offer jobs and opportunities to Indigenous lawyers to come work with us," he said.

Leblanc said he had serious conversations with at least four Indigenous lawyers about joining the inquiry, but they all declined. 

We did offer jobs and opportunities to Indigenous lawyers to come work with us.- Christian Leblanc, Commission chief counsel 

He said his team was careful to only hire legal counsel with experience working in Indigenous communities or on Indigenous issues. 

Leblanc also underscored the role that Indigenous commission staff play in decision-making.

"In the best world, if we could have had 50 per cent, it would have been a good statistic. But what's important is not the quantity, it's the quality. It's the role those people play in the work we do."

He said the inquiry also makes every effort to ensure the hearings are held in a welcoming and culturally sensitive atmosphere.

"We try to have an audience room that is as different as it can be from a court hearing room," he said. "We set the table in a circle. Everybody sits.

"We have the decor. We try to make it Aboriginal."

That's not good enough for Nakuset. She said she can't understand why the Quebec government wouldn't name an Indigenous judge to head the commission. 

"They have a connection and an understanding of our realities," she said. "It's always easier to see someone in power who has lived a similar experience."

Examples set by previous inquiries

A spokesperson for Quebec's Minister of Indigenous Affairs said Viens was selected following consultations with various Indigenous representatives. 

​But the former general counsel of the federal Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) says it's "essential" that there be Indigenous representation in the commission's leadership.

Paul Crépeau, one of the commission's lawyers, questions a witness during testimony before the inquiry. (Commission on relations between Indigenous peoples and specific public services in Quebec)

"I don't think ... a non-Indigenous person coming through a standard legal education in Canada comes away with a very good understanding of the Indigenous interactions with the justice system or the Indigenous perspective," said Tom McMahon, who also served as executive secretary to the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry of Manitoba.

He said it's not just about portraying an idea or image of equality; an inquiry's success relies on including high-ranking Indigenous members — as previous Indigenous inquiries have done.

People have to have that sense of trust in the team that's been assembled.- Madeleine Redfern, mayor of Iqaluit

In 1988, the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry was the first in Canadian history to have equal leadership, as it was co-chaired by Justice Alvin Hamilton and Justice Murray Sinclair.

Convened in 2009, the TRC met a benchmark of 50 per cent Indigenous staff, and two out of three of its commissioners were Indigenous. 

And the Qikiqtani Truth Commission, which was created to investigate the alleged slaughter and relocation of Inuit sled dogs after the Second World War, was the first Inuit-led inquiry.

Madeleine Redfern, now the mayor of Iqaluit, was executive director of the Qikiqtani Truth Commission — the first Inuit-led inquiry. (Kieran Oudshoorn/CBC)

The QTC found it "incredibly important" to have representation from the communities it was discussing, says Madeleine Redfern, who was the executive director of that commission and is now the mayor of Iqaluit.

"We ensured that the night before we did our hearings in the community, we held a community feast.... Sharing the food and culture and getting to know each other made people a lot more at ease and willing and able to participate in the commission," said Redfern, who is Inuk. 

"People have to have that sense of trust in the team that's been assembled."

About the Author

Jaela Bernstien

Jaela Bernstien is a national reporter based in Montreal. She's covered a wide range of news topics, ranging from criminal trials to ice age caves, and everything in between.