Indigenous leader slams Quebec politicians' 'indifference' over symbol backing police accused of assault

For the past two years, a group of provincial police officers have been wearing red bands on their uniforms to show solidarity with colleagues suspended after being accused of assaulting Indigenous women in Val-D'Or, Que.

In waning days of election campaign, Indigenous groups seek stronger political commitment

Ghislain Picard, the Quebec regional chief of the Assembly of First Nations, laments the lack of focus on Indigenous issues during the provincial election campaign. (Canadian Press)

For the past two years, a group of provincial police officers have been wearing a symbolic marker on their uniforms as a way to show solidarity with colleagues suspended after being accused of assaulting Indigenous women in Val-D'Or, Que.

Indigenous witnesses have told two inquiries into their treatment that they perceive the practice as an act of "intimidation and provocation."

And yet, as Indigenous groups call for a stronger commitment from the next provincial government, the two front-runners in the Quebec election stopped short of saying they would halt the practice if they win next Monday's election.

Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard said Thursday he was opposed to the practice of wearing red bands, but he wouldn't force officers to remove them.

Couillard said Thursday he opposes the red bands, but he didn't say he would order officers to remove them.

"The first people we have to talk about and think about are the women who expressed themselves very courageously. Our first solidarity goes to them. I know that there can be other types of solidarities, but I don't believe a police uniform is the right way to express them," he told reporters. 

But then, he added, "decisions on that matter should be made — are made — by the local police service."

Some Sûreté du Québec officers wear the red "144" band on their vests during a Native Friendship Centre event in Val-d'Or on June 22, 2017, National Indigenous Peoples Day. (Émélie Rivard-Boudreau/Radio-Canada)

On Tuesday, the  CAQ's François Legault said he "didn't want to pass judgment on the [police] union's decision."

"It's not for me to decide," he said, adding, however, that his government would try to work "more closely with First Nations."

Parti Québécois Leader Jean-François Lisée  took a more forceful position during a campaign stop this week in the region.

"I ask police officers here and elsewhere: do not display your beliefs; you are paid to enforce the law and represent the state," he said.

'Totally unacceptable'

The issue has flared up in the waning days of the election campaign, during which Indigenous leaders have called, repeatedly, for greater commitments from the political parties.

"Whether it's the fault of the politicians or observers of the campaign, nobody seems to really look at the First Nations issues," Ghislain Picard, the Quebec regional chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said in an interview.

Picard said the lack of clear language from Couillard and Legault on the arm band question is "totally unacceptable."

"I think it just reflects what I would call indifference," he said.​

In an open letter this week, Picard lamented that it took the hot-button debate over immigration levels for "us to find our way into the campaign," as an alternative solution to the province's labour shortage.

He acknowledged politicians may not have much incentive for focusing on Indigenous issues, given the historically low voter turnout among Indigenous people, but he said they have a moral obligation to make firm commitments.

"The turnout is still very low but, at the same time, this is beyond the issue of voting or not," he said.

"It should be non-partisan."

Investigation prompted suspensions

Officers in Val-d'Or, in northwestern Quebec, started wearing the bands two years ago, after eight colleagues were suspended following a Radio-Canada investigation into the mistreatment of Indigenous women.

Police officers attached the bands, inscribed with "144" — the number of the Val-d'Or detachment — to the top of their Sûreté du Québec vests, just above their name tags.

A protest was held outside the Val-d'Or courthouse in November 2015, after the Crown announced no police officers would be charged in connection to an abuse scandal. (Jonathan Montpetit/CBC)

Justice Jacques Viens, the retired judge presiding over Quebec's inquiry into the treatment of Indigenous people, said recently witnesses have told him the bands are perceived as intimidation and provocation, especially when officers wear them while visiting First Nations communities.

"I have hoped that at some point this practice would be abandoned," he said this month.

Michèle Audette, an Innu commissioner on the inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, has also expressed concern.

The Sûreté du Québec has declined to be interviewed about the practice while the two inquiries continue their work.

With files from Catou Mackinnon and Elias Abboud


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About the Author

Benjamin Shingler

Journalist

Benjamin Shingler covers politics, immigration and social issues for CBC Montreal. Follow him on Twitter @benshingler.