Culture of fear prevents Indigenous victims of police brutality from reporting alleged crimes

Around 75 Indigenous men and women have come forward with stories of mistreatment by police since Quebec launched a tip line in April. But those handling the calls worry a climate of fear is preventing many victims from filing formal complaints with police.

Government tip line received at least 75 complaints, but just 11 callers risked formal complaints to police

Émile Gregoire, 74, filed an official complaint alleging he was physically abused in a police station. (Radio-Canada)

At least 75 Indigenous men and women have come forward to report incidents of police brutality, intimidation and other mistreatment by Quebec police officers since the provincial government launched a tip line in April.

But the people taking those calls worry a culture of fear is preventing many alleged victims from making formal complaints to police. 

The tip line was set up after Radio-Canada's investigative program Enquête uncovered stories of sexual violence by Sûreté du Québec officers toward Aboriginal women in Val-d'Or, about 600 kilometres northwest of Montreal.

Managers of the tip line have received calls from across the province, from both men and women, complaining of abusive behaviour by SQ officers as well as members of Indigenous and municipal police forces.    

"The number of calls being received is surprising," said Jean Jolicoeur, vice-president of the Services parajudiciaires autochtones du Québec, a paralegal service that handles the calls to the government tip line.

He's struck particularly by how many men have come forward.

"Police brutality – that's fairly frequent. Sexual harassment is another case. There are also reports of intimidation, of police intimidating Aboriginal people."

Jean Jolicoeur is vice-president of Services parajudiciaires autochtones du Québec, a paralegal service that handles the complaints received by the tip line. (Catou MacKinnon/CBC news)

Climate of fear

Sources told Radio-Canada that of the 75 or so calls made to the tip line, only 11 formal complaints have been passed on to Montreal police, the force designated to investigate them.

One of the few people who have filed an official complaint about police abuse is Émile Gregoire, a 74-year-old Innu from Sept-Îles, Que.   

Gregoire told Radio-Canada that, while in a police station, an officer grabbed him by his arms and threatened to break his neck over a chair, calling him a "damn savage."

"I needed to tell my story because I'm in such pain," he said. 

Few, though, have been willing to take the step of filing a police complaint about treatment by other police. 

That's because many Aboriginal people live in small communities where police officers could be their neighbours, explained Jolicoeur. He said they are worried they could face reprisals from police if they testify against them.

"People are scared, that's our big problem," he said. "​You know you're in close proximity to the police.... So if you live in that context ... it's clear that certain worries will exist." 

Quebec's Public Security Department set up a toll-free number in April for Aboriginal people who wanted to complain about abuse by police.

Broken trust

For Ghislain Picard, chief of the Assembly of the First Nations of Quebec and Labrador, that sense of fear is evidence of the lack of trust between Indigenous communities and their police. 

"A relationship of trust simply doesn't exist between members of our communities and the police forces, [Montreal police] or others," Picard said. 

Jolicoeur's agency wants investigations stemming from the complaints it receives to be handled not by Montreal police but by the Bureau of Independent Investigations, the recently created public body that looks into deaths and injuries that occur during police operations. 

"There is always a risk of protection," said Jolicoeur. "It's difficult for police officers to blame their colleagues." 

The provincial agency responsible for Indigenous issues, the Secrétariat aux affaires autochtones, declined Radio-Canada's request for comment, as did Montreal police. 

A spokesperson for Quebec's Public Security Ministry told Radio-Canada in an email that allegations of sexual misconduct would be automatically forwarded to the Bureau of Independent Investigations.

based on a report by Radio-Canada's Jean-Philippe Robillard