Quebec premier announces 2-year inquiry into treatment of Indigenous people

After months of public pressure, the Quebec government has confirmed it will launch a public inquiry into the treatment of Indigenous people in the province.

Announcement comes after months of public pressure

Premier Philippe Couillard, flanked by Quebec Public Security Minister Lucie Charlebois (left) and Quebec Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée, announce the public inquiry after months of pressure from Indigenous leaders. (CBC)

After months of public pressure, the Quebec government has confirmed it will launch a public inquiry into the treatment of Indigenous people in the province.

Premier Philippe Couillard announced Tuesday afternoon the inquiry will focus on how Indigenous communities across the province are treated by various public bodies, including the police, correctional services, youth protection and health systems.

"We propose a forum that will allow us to address these issues and to analyze, without prejudice, without complacency and independently, the actions that must be taken so that everyone can live in a climate of trust rather suspicion and worry, of openness rather than contempt … of reconciliation and progress," Couillard said.

We are rejoicing this afternoon, we are savouring the moment.- Edith Cloutier,  executive director of Val-d'Or's Native Friendship Centre

The commission of inquiry will look at the last 15 years of Indigenous and provincial relations and hold audiences with Indigenous people, police and other affected communities in Val'd'Or and, if the commission deems it necessary, other regions in Quebec.

It is expected to be completed by Nov. 30, 2018.

Retired Superior Court justice Jacques Viens will preside over the commission of inquiry, an appointment that was made in consultation with First Nations, Couillard added.

Retired judge Jacques Viens worked fro 25 years in Abitibi, the region that encompasses the northern Quebec town of Val-d'Or where calls for an inquiry have resurfaced. (Ministère du Conseil exécutif)

The retired judge preferred not to comment on his appointment immediately, but indicated via news release that the next few weeks would be dedicated to assembling the commission and establishing a plan.

Viens notably dedicated 25 years of his career to the judiciary district of Abitibi, a region that encompasses the northern Quebec town of Val-d'Or, where a Radio-Canada investigation revealed allegations of police abuse against Indigenous women.

Initial calls for an inquiry grew louder last month after an investigation into the allegations concluded there was no evidence to charge the provincial police officers accused of wrongdoing. 

Quebec's Indigenous leaders spoke with Couillard on multiple occasions to make their case for an inquiry. 

Though Couillard initially resisted the pressure for an inquiry, he appeared to relent last week when the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls said it wouldn't be able to study the problems in Val-d'Or in any depth.

Couillard said the provincial inquiry would not re-examine the allegations of police abuse in Val-d'Or, but would look into systemic relations in the region between police and Indigenous people, as well as complement the federal inquiry.​

Couillard met with Indigenous leaders in Quebec City last month. The leaders have been pushing for a public inquiry for more than a year. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

Women in Val-d'Or 'rejoicing'

The Crown's decision not to charge any of the provincial police officers mentioned in 37 complaints cast doubt on the Quebec government's ability and willingness to protect Indigenous women.

But on Tuesday, Indigenous women gathered at Val-d'Or's Native Friendship Centre to hear the announcement were "rejoicing." 

"The mandate goes above and beyond relations [between Indigenous people] and police officers. We will address this whole sensitive and delicate question of systemic racism," the centre's executive director Edith Cloutier said.

"We're savouring the moment."

Ghislain Picard, chief of the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador, welcomed the announcement and applauded "the courage of the women at the centre of this process."

Protests such as this one outside the courthouse in Val-d'Or, Que., have been held to call for an inquiry into allegations that police abused Indigenous women in and around the northern Quebec town. (Jaime Little/CBC)

"It is thanks to them today that we have reached this stage of recognizing that discrimination and systemic racism is a priority and that measures must be put in place to combat them in Quebec," he said in a statement.

Nakuset, executive director of the Montreal Native Women's Shelter, echoed her approval of the "amazing" news, but said that the success of the inquiry would largely depend on whether the commission's front-line workers understand the effects of colonialism, residential schools and trauma.

"If you have someone who comes in and has a clear understanding, that would be much more helpful and you would actually get the information. It's about an inquiry, let's see what they have to say," she said.
Nakuset, executive director of the Montreal Native Women's Shelter, says she hopes the people working on the inquiry have an understanding of the effects of colonialism and trauma on Indigenous communities. (CBC)

The inquiry's focus on the Val-d'Or area is "definitely needed," Nakuset said, but the lack of certainty over whether systemic racism in other parts of Quebec would be looked into was disappointing.

"It's definitely happening here in Montreal," she told CBC News. "We see it every single day."

'What we want is accountability'

In the aftermath of the Crown's decision, Indigenous leaders and community members expressed their unwavering support for the dozens of women who felt their trauma went unacknowledged.

Meanwhile, the Sûreté du Québec, the province's police force, continues to deny any wrongdoing and is suing Radio-Canada for $2 million in damages for airing allegations of abuse.

Quebec Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée emphasized that the nearly two-year long inquiry would be informal, so as to "allow Indigenous women, members of Indigenous communities, police officers and other stakeholders to express their experiences and concerns under a less strict framework."

Vallée reiterated more than once that the inquiry's goal wasn't "to find the culprits."

"We are looking to listen, to reconcile and to progress, not to place blame," she said.

For Nakuset, the government's resolve not to point fingers makes it impossible for the women of Val-d'Or to feel vindicated.

"It's almost like they're silenced again," she said.

"What we want is accountability."