Sexual assault among biggest issues Indigenous women face in Montreal, community leaders say

Indigenous women in Montreal who are sexually assaulted are not reporting the incidents because of police indifference, community leaders say.

In past year, 11 women told staff at drop-in centre they'd been assaulted, but police slow to respond

The Open Door's outreach worker John Tessier (left) and director David Chapman told the Viens commission that 'the system is broken' when it comes to supporting Indigenous people. (CBC)

Indigenous women in Montreal who are sexually assaulted are not reporting the incidents because of police indifference, community leaders say.

The Viens commission, tasked with looking into the treatment of Indigenous people seeking public services in Quebec, heard more stories Tuesday about how many roadblocks Indigenous women face when trying to report a crime to police.

During three hours of testimony, staff from The Open Door recounted several instances where they had been told about someone's sexual assault, and they tried to step in to help.

"Sexual assault is one of the biggest problems we face," said David Chapman, the acting director of Open Door, a Montreal drop-in centre whose clients are largely Indigenous.

"In the last year, 10 Indigenous women said they were raped or sexually assaulted…[Of] the 10, only three were willing to make a report to police."

The commission is headed by retired Quebec Superior Court Justice Jacques Viens. It is in Montreal until the end of the week, and then will be back in March for two more weeks.

Chapman told the public inquiry that he tried to intervene but faced repeated roadblocks.

He testified that when an Inuk woman told staff at Open Door she had been assaulted, police didn't act fast enough.

Chapman said he had to persuade the woman to file a police report. When police were finally called, no one came.

"When I called 911 for the third time, I said to the operator, 'Look, I've got a woman here who's been raped in the last 48 hours. She doesn't have a lot of confidence in police. Why on earth is it taking so long?'"

"'Would it be faster if I took a hammer and went across the street and smashed a window on the neighbour's SUV? Would that get a car here more quickly?' And the operator said to me, 'Yes it would,'" Chapman said.

Caleb Clark, The Open Door's former director, told the commission the police system of serving the Indigenous community is broken.

He spoke of instances in which officers openly mocked Indigenous people, and he said some officers refused to investigate their complaints.

John Tessier, an outreach worker at the drop-in centre, said that more resources are also needed to help fight substance abuse. He said that as it stands right now, someone with an alcohol or opioid addiction has to wait a long time for detox services.

"It's a two-and-a-half to three-week process, if everything goes smoothly. But when somebody is homeless, and they're struggling from alcohol addiction, heroin addiction, opioid addiction, pills, whatever the case is, we don't know where they're going to be tomorrow," Tessier said.

The Viens commission, which is travelling across the province looking into the mistreatment of Indigenous people by Quebec's public service system, is in Montreal until Friday. It will return again in March for another two weeks.

On Wednesday, staff from the Native Women's Shelter of Montreal will talk more about relations between the city's Indigenous population and police.

CBC News reached out to Montreal police. A spokesperson said the police department will not comment on any testimony until the commission completes its mandate.

With files from CBC reporter Matt D'Amours