Politicians and First Nations activists in Quebec say they are shocked and are demanding a widespread investigation following allegations that provincial police abused and sexually assaulted aboriginal women in Val-d'Or.
"I think we must all, not only deplore, but strongly condemn these acts if they are indeed corroborated by the investigation," said Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard.
"There is no tolerance in our society for any act of oppression of any kind — particularly not from people who hold positions of power and especially not toward segments of the population that are already in vulnerable positions due to their status — their aboriginal women's status in particular."
Couillard made the comments in the National Assembly Thursday, one day after the allegations were made public in a report from Radio-Canada's investigative program Enquête.
The report uncovered stories of sexual violence toward aboriginal women in the Quebec community of Val-d'Or. With a population of about 32,000, the town is situated about 500 kilometres northwest of Montreal. It is located close to several Algonquin communities.
Speaking publicly for the first time, alleged victims told Enquête about a pattern involving provincial police over a period of at least two decades.
They say officers routinely picked up women who appeared to be intoxicated, drove them out of town and left them to walk home in the cold. Some allege they were physically assaulted or made to perform sex acts.
"A police officer is in a position of authority. It's unacceptable to abuse his position and his power to sexually assault women … especially when women are in vulnerable situations," said Lise Thériault, Quebec's public security minister, in the National Assembly.
Stéphanie Vallée, Quebec's justice minister and minister responsible for the status of women, agreed.
"If these allegations are proven, I find it completely unacceptable, regardless of the person, the victim, the victim's past — whether the victim is a drug addict, a prostitute. Women, individuals, have a right to have their integrity respected."
Independent investigation wanted
Thériault said Thursday that Sûreté du Québec officers visited Val-d'Or three times recently to speak to the alleged victims.
Provincial police have confirmed that they are investigating 14 complaints of abuse of power and assault involving eight officers. The officers remain on the job. There are no charges at this time.
But Parti Québécois Leader Pierre Karl Péladeau said the SQ shouldn't be investigating its own members in this case.
"An independent investigation is the only thing that can restore the public's trust," he said.
Thériault said the investigation is not being led by investigators based in Val-d'Or.
An upcoming provincial legislative committee will deal with violence against aboriginal women in Quebec. Now activists and community leaders say it needs to have a wider scope.
"If we do a parliamentary commission, we have to look across Quebec now," said Michèle Audette, former president of the Native Women's Association of Canada. "If it [is happening] in Val-d'Or, I'm sure it's happening in Sept-Îles, Montreal, Quebec or other cities where there's aboriginal communities close to those cities."
Ghislain Picard, chief of the Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador, also said he has a hunch the alleged situation in Val-d'Or is not an isolated case.
"I'm sure this is going on elsewhere...it is extremely, extremely troubling."