What's next for the Indigenous women of Val-d'Or?
Advocates want more psychological help available for women who accused police of abuse
It has been 18 months since several Indigenous women from the Val-d'Or area first went public with claims they were repeatedly abused and intimidated by Quebec provincial police officers.
Coming forward brought disruption and doubt. But they soldiered on, they said in a statement earlier this week, in the hope the sacrifices would be worth the justice rendered.
What happens to these women now that the Crown has opted not to charge the six Sûreté du Québec officers at the centre of the allegations in Val-d'Or?
The officers had been under investigation by Montreal police since October 2015, since an investigation by Radio-Canada's investigative program Enquête revealed several stories of police abuse of Indigenous women.
"Tomorrow morning, the most urgent need for these women is psychological help," said Viviane Michel, who heads Quebec Native Women, an advocacy group.
The women require resources that go beyond what is currently available in Indigenous communities, which Michel said are already overwhelmed by demand for psychological services. Earlier this week Ghislain Picard, chief of the Assembly of the First Nations of Quebec and Labrador, called for emergency funding to help the women who came forward.
"We are in the process of awakening traumas, but also of an anger that's inside," Michel said. "How can we hope to calm them after such a disappointment?"
The regional branch of the provincial victim support agency (CAVAC) indicated it would be making its services available. But Nancy Bouchard, the branch's director general, also suggested that prosecutions, by themselves, can't heal the wounds of sexual violence.
"I don't think we heal from a sexual assault, we simply learn to live with it," Bouchard said.
That I have fears...
Learning to live with their experiences for the women will involve confronting their fears and a renewed sense of vulnerability.
In the statement signed by 11 women who made complaints about police conduct, a number of their fears are listed: "fear of the return of the suspended police officers, fear of reprisals, fear of our own security."
That sense of vulnerability appeared to be shared more widely following the Crown's decision.
"I'm scared for my children, I'm scared for my grandchildren," said Françoise Ruperthouse, a Pikogan councillor who was visibly upset after leaving a meeting Friday with Crown prosecutors.
"I'm scared for the whole community, for all the women here. I'm even scared for the men."
The status of the suspended officers is unclear. The SQ has refused repeated requests for comment on that matter.
There is a possibility that the officers, who were suspended after the allegations surfaced last year, may yet face professional sanctions, even if criminal punishment is off the table.
During the investigation, led by Montreal police, several women were told by investigators that their allegations might be better suited for a police ethics board, the Crown said Friday.
But Crown prosecutors say that matters of professional conduct, or even a civil suit, are outside their mandate.
In a statement released late Friday, the Sûreté du Québec said it had directed its professional norms division to go over the case files that involve its officers.
"It will have the mandate to determine whether there is cause to hold a disciplinary inquiry," the statement said.
Indigenous leaders have indicated they will increase pressure on the provincial government to hold an independent inquiry into police treatment of Indigenous Quebecers.
They, along with the Val-d'Or town council, have been calling on the Liberals to set up such an inquiry since the allegations of misconduct first surfaced last year.
The Liberals have opposed the move, preferring to let the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls tackle more systemic issues.
That position is no longer tenable, say Indigenous leaders, given the provincial justice system's inability to protect them.
"It's not up to the government to decide what's good for us," said Michel. "It's up to us to decide what's good for us."