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As Quebec's inquiry into Indigenous relations enters final phase, many question SQ's desire for reconciliation

Quebec's inquiry into the treatment of Indigenous people closed with pleas from Indigenous leaders for a formal apology from provincial police.

Last witnesses demand formal apology and change of culture within provincial police

The Viens Commission was called following outcry at allegations of police mistreatment of Indigenous women in Val-d'Or, Que. (Sandra Ataman/Radio-Canada)

Quebec's inquiry into Indigenous relations was launched after several women went public in 2015 with allegations that provincial police in Val-d'Or, Que., sexually assaulted them and regularly took them on so-called "starlight tours."

Though these women did not testify before the inquiry, many of the nearly 300 people who did share stories of abuse and mistreatment commended their courage.

"They are aware they made a difference," said Édith Cloutier, who heads the Val-d'Or Native Friendship Centre and has been in contact with the women since the allegations were first made public.

"We remind them how important it was not only for them, for Indigenous women, for Indigenous society, but also for Quebec society as a whole."

But one thing that has not changed, Cloutier said, is the Sûreté du Québec's "total denial" of the existence of systemic racism within its ranks.

Like Cloutier, many Indigenous figures who testified before the commission expressed concerns about how Quebec police treat Indigenous communities. 

As the commission prepares to deliver its final report, they are wondering if the SQ is at all interested in pursuing reconciliation efforts.

Testimony 'horrific' at times 

The inquiry was called by the previous Liberal government in 2016, amid outcry prompted by the stories of abuse, which were initially aired by Radio-Canada. 

A retired Quebec judge, Jacques Viens, was given the mandate of examining how Quebec's Indigenous population is treated not only by police, but by public employees in general.

The public-hearing phase lasted 38 weeks and was held mostly in Val-d'Or, though the commission also travelled to ​Mani-Utenam, Mistissini, Montreal, Kuujjuaq and Kuujjuarapik, in northern Quebec.

The women of Val-d'Or who accused provincial police of various forms of abuse, seen here at a 2016 news conference. Crown prosecutors did not lay any charges based on their complaints. (Julia Page/CBC)

In all, the commission heard from 765 people. Of them, 277 testified about their personal encounters with police, hospital staff and other public services like youth protection and the justice system.

They described how the discrimination they experienced was, in some cases, life-altering. Viens reacted to these stories by calling them "horrific."

During its stop in Kuujjuarapik, Mary Pirti Kumarluk told the commission her son died after health-care workers refused to send him for emergency treatment, even though he had been struck by an all-terrain vehicle.

They told the 34-year-old he was "a strong hunter," Kumarluk said, and didn't need the treatment. 

Another man, Johnny Anautak, described how he was arrested for breaching bail conditions and as a result was unable to see his mother before she died.

Several Indigenous women came forward with stories similar to those heard by Radio-Canada, as well as testifying to being mistreated or even injured while in police custody.

"Will the SQ apologize for the way its officers acted?" Viviane Michel, president of Native Women Quebec, asked the commission on Friday.

SQ accused of doing little for reconciliation 

Michel was both the first and last person to testify at the hearings. On Friday, she expressed concern the original purpose of the inquiry — police treatment of Indigenous women in Val-d'Or — would be sidelined by the broad scope of the testimony.  

The SQ, she said, still has not acknowledged any wrongdoing since the allegations of abuse first surfaced, nor have they taken measures to address the social unrest that ensued.

Edith Cloutier, of the Native Friendship Centre in Val-d'Or, said the Sûreté du Québec is in "total denial" about systemic racism within its ranks. (Catou Mackinnon/CBC)

"They broke the trust with these women. They have the responsibility to fix it," Michel said. She called for a complete overhaul of police accountability mechanisms.

In August, the commission heard from a former SQ officer in Val-d'Or who said he informed his superior of allegations of mistreatment in 2013, two years before the Radio-Canada report aired.

"This is really upsetting that nothing was done," said Rainbow Miller, a lawyer with Native Women Quebec.

"If this were nice little girls from Westmount who were assaulted by police — and the complaints went nowhere—  if the public found out, people would have said that doesn't make sense," she testified Friday morning.

Miller asked Viens to investigate this particular case or order a separate public investigation.

The head of the SQ in 2015, Martin Prud'homme, ​testified in October that he had no indication there were any problems at the Val-d'Or detachment.

Mary Pirti Kumarluk, and her daughter Siasi Kumarluk, say racism in the health-care system played a part in the death of their son and brother, Levi Pirti Kumarluk. (Catou MacKinnon/CBC)

Other top SQ officials who testified refused to condemn officers in Val-d'Or who started wearing a controversial red band on their uniforms, in support of their colleagues who were suspended following the allegations aired by Radio-Canada.

The SQ's refusal to order their removal was another blow to the relationship with Indigenous communities, said Wina Sioui, a lawyer with the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador (AFNQL), who testified last week.

"[The red bands] were perceived as confrontational, intimidating and offensive, and certainly light years from reconciliation," said Sioui.

Officers only took them off in October, when their suspended colleagues reached an out-of-court agreement with the SQ, a move Sioui described as "Indigenous women again being used for someone else's benefit."

She also questioned why the SQ did not follow the example of their counterparts in the rest of Canada.

The RCMP presented an apology in front of the federal inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, which also happened to wrap up on Friday.

"It's a total miss on that level. That showed us a total refusal to do any introspection work," Sioui said.

Closing ceremony pays tribute to missing woman

Viens closed the inquiry by thanking all those who accepted to share their stories, hoping the outcome would allow Indigenous women "to finally feel safe."

"We must recognize the courage of the women who spoke out and who were at the forefront of all this," said Viens, who met privately with some of the women in a sharing circle.

The closing ceremony also acknowledged the crucial role played by another woman in the events that led to the creation of the commission.

Sindy Ruperhouse vanished in 2014. Her disappearance sparked the initial Radio-Canada investigation into police treatment of Indigenous women in Val-d'Or.

Janet Mark, the commission's coordinator for relations with Indigenous people, led the room into a moment of silence in Ruperhouse's memory.

"We wanted to recognize the legacy Sindy leaves behind. Wherever you are Sindy, miigwech, thank you."

Viens is expected to table a final report in September, 2019. 

About the Author

Julia Page

Journalist

Julia Page is a radio and online journalist with CBC News, based in Quebec City.

With files from Catou MacKinnon