'A necessary process for healing': Inquiry into Quebec's treatment of Indigenous people begins

The inquiry on how Quebec treats Indigenous people began in Val-d'Or, Que., Monday with a moving ceremony - and a plea for reconciliation and "social change" from the first witness, Native Women's Association President Viviane Michel.

Provincial probe opens with moving ceremony, and a tearful plea for true reconciliation from 1st witness

Quebec Native Women's Association President Vivianne Michel wept as she talked about the systemic discrimination Indigenous women have suffered. She was the first person to testify at the inquiry led by retired Superior Court justice Jacques Viens. (Radio-Canada)

The inquiry on how Quebec treats Indigenous people began in Val-d'Or, Que., Monday with a moving ceremony — and a plea for reconciliation and "social change" from the first witness, Native Women's Association President Viviane Michel.

Her voice breaking and her eyes filled with tears, Michel told the commission she hoped this inquiry will lead, once and for all, to improved relations between Indigenous people and Quebec's public institutions.

"In inquiry after inquiry, recommendations are made, facts are made public: systemic discrimination, structural and institutional violence," she said. "I've had all I can take. I need to see social change for our people."   

Allegations reported by Radio-Canada in 2015 that police in Val-d'Or had mistreated Indigeous women prompted protests and helped drive calls for public hearings. After months of public pressure, the Quebec government announced the inquiry last December.

The inquiry began with prayers and chanting in a solemn opening ceremony, led by Anishinaabe elders Roy Paul and Phillip Gliddy. 

Retired Superior Court justice Jacques Viens, who is presiding over the provincial probe, sat in a sacred circle with other representatives of the commission and the invited guests, in an atmosphere of equality and mutual respect.

Anishinaabe elder Phillip Gliddy, from Kenora, Ont., spoke about the need to listen to those who have been silenced at the opening ceremony of Quebec's inquiry into the treatment of Indigenous people. (Radio-Canada)

Gliddy, a longtime worker at the Ne Chee Native Friendship Centre in Kenora, Ont., spoke of the importance of listening to what Indigenous witnesses have to say in the weeks to come.

"We're opening doors for these people. They need to be heard," he said. "Nobody wanted to listen to them."

"This is a necessary process for healing."

Moving forward together

While the two-year inquiry will focus on how Indigenous people in Val-d'Or and other parts of the province are treated by public bodies, Viens said the goal is to listen, encourage reconciliation and move forward together.

The provincial probe is also working in conjunction with the federal government's inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

Viens raised the possibility that some testimony may take place behind closed doors, to protect the identity of witnesses. 

He also promised to make sure Indigenous women's voices, from Val-d'Or and elsewhere in the province, are heard.

Retired Superior Court justice Jacques Viens is presiding over the province's inquiry into the treatment of Indigenous people. (Vincent Desjardins/Radio-Canada)

Michel, an Innu from Maliotenam now serving her third mandate as Quebec Native Women's Association president, said it isn't easy being an Indigenous woman in Quebec, describing how the system lacks understanding of the realities of their lives.

She acknowledged that health and social services are available, but women are often reluctant to seek them out because they doubt they'll end up being helped.

"We don't see child protection as a protective service," she said by way of example, "but one where the child will end up being removed."

Michel recommended that police, lawyers and others in the justice system who deal with Indigenous people go through mandatory training, so that they learn about the realities of each community they work with and react with sensitivity. 

Anishinaabe elder Roy Paul, with drum, helped open the inquiry into Quebec's treatment of Indigenous people in Val-d'Or, Que., on June 5. (Radio-Canada)

The hearings continue Tuesday with testimony from Ghislain Picard, the regional chief of the Assembly of First Nations for Quebec and Labrador.

Among other witnesses scheduled to appear this month, Matthew Coon Come, the Grand Chief of the Grand Council of the Crees of Quebec (Eeyou Istchee) will testify. 

Town mayors, anthropologists, public services and the province's Director of Criminal and Penal Prosecutions are also slated to appear before the commission.

The inquiry is expected to be completed by Nov. 30, 2018.

With files from Sean Henry and Radio-Canada's Jean-Philippe Robillard