Montreal

2 years after Viens report, Quebec Indigenous affairs minister acknowledges 'still a lot of work to be done'

The Quebec government is slowly moving forward with recommendations laid out in the Viens commission, a landmark report two years ago that documented the mistreatment of Indigenous Peoples in the province. 

Province says more changes coming by spring, with focus on education, youth protection and women

Quebec's minister responsible for Indigenous affairs, Ian Lafrenière gave an update on the implementation of the recommendations laid out in the Viens report on Friday. (Sylvain Roy Roussel/Radio-Canada)

The Quebec government is slowly moving forward with recommendations laid out in the Viens commission, a landmark report two years ago that documented the mistreatment of Indigenous people in the province. 

Ian Lafrenière, minister responsible for Indigenous affairs, said Friday he has been meeting with Indigenous leaders since taking over the position last fall. 

He said 68 recommendations have been implemented — or will be over the coming months — but that hundreds more changes could be necessary in areas ranging from policing to health care, based on the findings of the Viens commission and other reports.

He outlined three immediate priorities: education, youth protection and the well-being of Indigenous women.

"It's a start, there's still a lot of work to be done, I'm very aware," Lafrenière said at a news conference.

"I have the profound conviction that we are on the right track."

Cautious optimism among Indigenous leaders

"We must recognize that there is an effort," said Édith Cloutier, executive director of the Val-d'Or Native Friendship Centre. While she said much more still needs to be done, she saluted the steps taken by the government.

The key to reconciliation is taking concrete actions, she said, such as actively working to decrease the number of Indigenous children in foster care or helping Indigenous people enter the workforce.

Viviane Michel, president of Quebec Native Women Inc., said she was happy that the government was planning to focus on the well-being of Indigenous women. "It's a new thing that we are prioritized," she said.

But she is careful not to be too optimistic, she said, because in order to ensure the well-being of Indigenous women the province also has to ensure their safety. And that's something it has failed to do in the past, she added, noting that there have been many incidents of police brutality against them.

Michel also questioned why the government hadn't awarded her organization any of the funding meant for reconciliation if it was so keen to prioritize women, because it is one of the largest defenders of Indigenous women's rights in the province.

Viens commission acknowledges racial discrimination

Lafrenière said the completed recommendations and those unfulfilled will be made public on the government's website.

The Viens commission, tabled in September 2019, described the harm endured by First Nations and Inuit as a result of provincial laws, policies and practices. 

Retired Superior Court Justice Jacques Viens concluded it was "impossible to deny" Indigenous people in Quebec are victims of "systemic discrimination."

Lafrenière noted the anniversary of the death of Joyce Echaquan is also approaching.

Echaquan, a 37-year-old Atikamekw woman, died last Sept. 28 after livestreaming the abusive remarks of hospital staff in Joliette.

Joyce Echaquan's death is a stark reminder of the discrimination faced by Indigenous people in the province. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Her death was seen as confirmation of the systemic racism facing Indigenous people in the health-care system.

"We have this duty to remember," Lafrenière said. "I invite all Quebecers to remember the shocking event that happened last year."

He acknowledged that the government's reluctance to acknowledge the existence of systemic racism was in "every, every conversation" he had last fall. Now, according to Lafrenière, people are more focused on concrete actions.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Benjamin Shingler is a reporter with CBC's investigative unit in Montreal. He previously worked at The Canadian Press, Al Jazeera America and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. Email story ideas to benjamin.shingler@cbc.ca.

with files from Franca Mignacca and Valeria Cori-Mannochio

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