Montreal's Indigenous homeless women face roadblocks in quest for justice

Homeless Indigenous living in Montreal are frequent victims of sex crimes, says an advocate, but having to travel to the SPVM station at Place Versailles to record their formal complaint is a formidable roadblock.

SPVM Aboriginal liaison officer says the force is open to adapting to fit Indigenous community's needs

Jessica Quijano, who co-ordinates the Native Women's Shelter of Montreal's Iskweu project for at-risk Indigenous women, says Inuit victims of sex crimes in the city's west end face unique challenges in reporting what happened to them. (Kate McKenna/CBC)

On any given week, Jessica Quijano estimates she hears two or three complaints of sexual assault from her clients — predominantly homeless Indigenous women staying in Montreal's west end.

But she says helping victims navigate the legal system with their complaints ranges from challenging to impossible.

It's a system that's rigged against them, she says.

"Because they're more vulnerable, it really isn't a fair system," said Quijano, who co-ordinates the Iskwei project of the Native Women's Shelter, a government-funded program to support imperilled Indigenous women.

Place Versailles is a world away

There are many reasons victims choose not to report their sexual assault, Quijano says. However, there's one barrier that stands out in preventing many from ultimately having their day in court.

When someone makes a sexual assault complaint in Montreal, they're required to travel to the Montreal police service's headquarters for specialized investigations in Place Versailles, in the city's east end.

At the Place Versailles station, the victim meets with staff from the sexual assault unit and provides a filmed account of what happened — key to proceeding with prosecution. 
The Montreal police have a station at Place Versailles, an east-end shopping centre. (Kate McKenna/CBC)
For most of the city's Indigenous homeless population, that means travelling to a part of the city that's unknown to them, more than 10 kilometres east of where they tend to congregate, in and around Cabot Square.

The square has served as an informal meeting area for the city's Inuit population since the 1980s. 

Now condo towers are rising around it, and new storefronts clad in trendy, millennial-pink signage are popping up, but even as the neighbourhood becomes hip, many of the city's Inuit consider the area their home.  

Travelling east from Atwater Metro to Radisson, in the city's east end, presents a barrier for victims, says Quijano. 

"I work with people who need to survive, and taking a few hours out of their day to go to Place Versailles means that they're not going to be able to make money during that time," she said. "Just because you're living on the street, you do need to work to survive on the street."

Many of her clients struggle with addictions, she said, and they must be sober to provide their recorded testimony, adding another layer to the challenge.

In addition, Place Versailles is located in a predominantly-Francophone part of the city. Quijano said many of her clients speak Inuktitut and then English as a second language, making communication in French another barrier they face.

Quijano would like to see the SPVM set up an alternative location, ideally one near Cabot Square, where victims can meet with specialized investigators to give their video testimony.

SPVM open to changes

The SPVM says it's open to making changes in how sexual violence complaints are investigated, including possibly changing protocol so victims don't have to go to the station at Place Versailles.

The message I want to send ... is that if you're a victim, we will be there for you.- SPVM Const. Carlo  DeAngelis , Aboriginal  liason  officer 

In fact, Const. Carlo DeAngelis, the SPVM's Aboriginal liason officer, says there's a meeting next week to discuss that possibility.

"It's a positive step," DeAngelis said. "We are sensitive to the situation; we are aware. That's why we've set this meeting up. The message I want to send ... is that if you're a victim, we will be there for you. We will take your report. We will take it seriously."
SPVM Aboriginal liason officer Const. Carlo DeAngelis, right, and his partner, Const. Patricia Drouin, often work in Cabot Square. (Kate McKenna/CBC)

DeAngelis said when a victim makes a police report, officers will go to meet the victim wherever they may be, even if it's in a shelter or on a street corner.

He said the priority is to make sure the person is out of imminent danger, and police will take victims to the hospital to do a rape kit, if required.

The portion of the investigation that must be done at Place Versailles happens a little later, and DeAngelis says it's imperative that victims aren't deterred from filing the initial report.

About the Author

Kate McKenna

Kate McKenna is a journalist with CBC Montreal. Email her at kate.mckenna@cbc.ca