Montreal

Ex-Montreal police inspector takes over as Quebec's Indigenous affairs minister

Quebec Premier François Legault has chosen Ian Lafrenière, a former high-ranking Montreal police officer, as his new Indigenous affairs minister in the wake of the death of Joyce Echaquan.

Ian Lafrenière promises talks with Indigenous leaders, concrete change in wake of death of Joyce Echaquan

Ian Lafrenière, the new minister of Indigenous affairs, held a news conference Friday in Quebec City. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

Quebec Premier François Legault has chosen a former high-ranking Montreal police officer to take over as Indigenous affairs minister in the wake of the death of an Atikamekw woman last week.

Ian Lafrenière replaces Sylvie D'Amours, who had come under fire for the province's inaction in addressing discrimination facing Indigenous people.

Legault said he chose Lafrenière, in part, because he's a former police officer. 

"I think one of the main challenges is to rebuild trust between Indigenous nations and police officers, and who better than a police officer, who understands that problem, to solve it?" he said Friday.

"I'm convinced that Ian will succeed in developing good relations with the Indigenous nations."

Joyce Echaquan, a 37-year-old mother of seven, died last Monday in a Joliette, Que., hospital, after a video captured staff making derogatory remarks about her.

Legault said he will ensure Lafrenière takes concrete and immediate action in response to the final report by the Viens Commission, which was released a year ago.

The report documented the discrimination Indigenous people face when receiving public services. It laid out 142 recommendations, including several to address problems in access to health-care services. 

The commission was launched in 2016, following a Radio-Canada investigation into allegations of police misconduct against Indigenous women in Val-d'Or, Que.

The province has so far failed to act on the bulk of the recommendations. D'Amours said earlier this month she had a plan in place to address 51 of them.

Sylvie D'Amours has faced criticism for failing to act on the Viens report. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

Lafrenière promises swift action

Lafrenière, who was elected in 2018, is the former head of communications at Montreal police, an organization that has had its own problems with racial profiling and discrimination.

 A report from three independent researchers released last year found systemic bias in street checks done by Montreal police. 

According to that report, Indigenous women were over-represented and 11 times more likely to be stopped by police than white women.

But Lafrenière said he is dedicated to working with Indigenous communities and will begin reaching out to chiefs as soon as possible.

"I'm going to talk to them. This is the first priority," he said.

Lafrenière refused to give any examples of concrete actions he will take, saying he would like to hear from Indigenous communities first. 

Chance for new start, First Nations Assembly says

In a release Friday, the Assembly of First Nations Quebec and Labrador said it was pleased with the announcement, as it will allow for new relationships between the Quebec government and Indigenous leaders. 

But the assembly said it will be keeping a close eye on Legault's actions in the coming months. 

"There are many issues, including several emergencies, that require his immediate attention. I am
making myself available right now for a meeting," said Ghislain Picard, regional chief for Quebec and Labrador. 

Before the official announcement was made, Nakuset, executive director of the Native Women's Shelter of Montreal, said she would have preferred to see someone who had been advocating for Indigenous rights take on the role, rather than someone who routinely defended the actions of police.

"He was the face of the SPVM," she said, referring to Montreal police. "It's disheartening." 

Calls to recognize systemic racism

Echaquan's death has renewed calls for Legault's government to acknowledge systemic racism exists in the province. 

But both Legault and Lafrenière said Friday the government's position remains unchanged.

"I recognize that there is racism and profiling and discrimination. I also recognize that currently the term of systemic racism is not accepted unanimously and instead of fighting over this, I think that what people want is action, concrete action," Lafrenière said. 

Constant Awashish, grand chief of the Atikamekw Nation, said that while he believes Lafrenière will be a good fit for the job, acknowledging systemic racism is an important step in gaining people's trust. 

"It doesn't [mean] all Quebecers are racist. We've been saying that from the beginning," said Awashish. 

An open letter, made public Friday and signed by more than 470 university professors and health professors, called on Legault to recognize systemic racism.

WATCH | Joyce Echaquan's husband pleads for justice:

Echaquan's husband, Carol Dubé, tearfully asks that her death not be in vain and calls for recognition that systemic racism exists. 2:01

With files from Julia Page and Lauren McCallum

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