Families and survivors share stories, denounce lack of government support at MMIWG hearings

Families taking part in the public hearings of the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Quebec asked commissioners to push for more thorough police investigations on the first day of testimonies.

Public hearings in Quebec bring witnesses forward after decades of silence

Deborah Eiwish's testimony at the MMIWG hearings in Quebec today marked the first time she has spoken publicly about being sexually assaulted by a police officer in Schefferville, Que., in 1980. (CBC)

Families taking part in the first public hearings of the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Quebec called on commissioners to push for more thorough police investigations.

For Deborah Eiwish, Monday marked the first time she's spoken publicly about allegedly being sexually assaulted by a police officer in Schefferville, Que., in 1980.

"I never spoke of this with my parents. My children didn't know what I was feeling," said Eiwish, who struggled to speak through tears throughout her testimony. 

"I always felt that no one would listen to me."

She was one of the first to take part in the public hearings, which got underway in the Innu community of Uashat mak Mani-Utenam, near Sept-Îles on Quebec's North Shore.

The inquiry is investigating the deaths and disappearances of Indigenous women and girls across Canada. 

Eiwish was four months pregnant when she walked by a street fight outside a discotheque in Schefferville, just outside the Innu community of Matimekush-Lac John.

A police officer arrested her and escorted her to the local police station where she was put in a into a "dungeon-like" cell, she recounted.

"There was a police officer, he brought me a cup and there were pills. When I woke up, I had been raped," she told the inquiry.

Eiwish said she was released from the jail cell shortly after, driven back to her town and ran home. She was never charged with a crime.

37 years of silence

Eiwish said she finally filed an official complaint to Montreal police after allegations of sexual abuse by police officers in Val-d'Or surfaced in 2015.

"Everything that happened, even my sisters were not aware," she said.

"No one knew. My daughter is now 37. So I've kept this to myself for 37 years."

Women played the drums on Monday at the opening ceremony for the hearings in Mani-Utenam, Que. (Julia Page/CBC)

Montreal police was tasked with the investigation in 2016 because the allegations involved provincial police officers.        

Of the 40 cases opened, two led to criminal charges. They involved two retired police officers in Schefferville.

Eiwish's case was closed in November 2017. A prosecutor met with her in her home to explain there was not enough evidence to move forward.

Eiwish said the complexity of proving sexual assaults makes the MMIWG inquiry all the more important.

"They broke my daughter who was within me. It was my small baby who experienced that rape."

Eiwish asked that more psychological support be provided to people who come forward with these kinds of allegations.

"I would like some help. I would like the investigation to continue. I would like to be well at some point."

Broken families

The Vachon family said they were also left to fend for themselves after the death of  Adèle-Patricia Vachon-Bellefleur, who was nicknamed Adèlus by all those who knew her.

The 17-year-old died in 2011 after being beaten outside a community centre in Pessamit, an Innu community about 300 kilometres from Mani-Utenam on the North Shore.

The coroner concluded the cause of death was cardiac arrhythmia brought on by the violent attack. Her mother, Gilberte Vachon, said she would never accept this.

Andrée and Gilberte Vachon spoke at the commission about the loss of their beloved sister and daughter, Adèle-Patricia Vachon-Bellefleur. She was known to everyone as Adèlus. (CBC)

"To die of a heart attack? As if it was nothing? No, for sure there was no heart attack involved here," Gilberte Vachon said.

Andrée Vachon told the commission that her sister Adèlus was someone who always helped others and that was what she was trying to do the night she died.

"My sister wanted to defend the girls from Mani-Utenam," said Andrée Vachon.

Dozens of people gathered in the community centre on Monday lined up after the testimony to hug the family and show their support.

Gilberte Vachon said her daughter Adèlus' smile was her trademark, and that she always offered to help others.

Gilberte Vachon said after her daughter's death, Adèlus' boyfriend and best friend committed suicide.

In December of that year, the family home burned down.

This was almost too much to bear, Gilberte Vachon said.

"I couldn't take it anymore. There's a part of me that is gone, a part of my heart."

Neighbours who took the couple in gave them a bit of hope, naming their newborn daughter Adela in her honour.

"That helped me a lot, because I am now a godmother."

Social justice

Gilberte Vachon said she can no longer go near the community centre her daughter went to that night.

She said it's also difficult to live side by side with some of the people who were involved in the fight, including one person who was accused of assault who was later acquitted.

The family is also questioning how balanced the police investigation was at the time, given the police chief allegedly personally knew some of the people involved.

Commissioner Michèle Audette commented on this, admitting justice is sometimes difficult in small communities.

"We ask for justice, but when we always live together, social justice is not easy."

Gilberte Vachon said she never received support from the province's Crime Victims Assistance Centre.

She said that aid is crucial for families, and she asked the commissioners to continue searching for answers.

"We don't even know what happened. There are still so many questions. It's as though there were lies around this whole event."