Quebec's Indigenous leaders want inquiry into Val-d'Or allegations

Quebec's Indigenous leaders are demanding more funding from the provincial government to deal with the effects of systemic racism, along with an independent inquiry into the issue.

'This is a provincewide crisis needing the attention of the province,' says Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come

Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come, of the Grand Council of the Crees, right, accused the government of having a double standard in its response to Indigenous concerns. (CBC)

The Quebec government's reaction to widespread allegations of abuse by police in and around Val-d'Or was criticized by Indigenous leaders at a news conference in Montreal today.

The leaders want more funding from the province to deal with the effects of systemic racism, and also want an independent inquiry called on the abuse issue.

Crown prosecutors announced last week there was not enough evidence to charge any of the officers named in the allegations. 

Indigenous leaders have been calling for an inquiry into police relations with Indigenous people since the accusations from Val-d'Or surfaced last year.

The government has refused that demand, a position it reiterated in the wake of the Crown's announcement. That drew condemnation from Indigenous leaders, who say the government is turning a blind eye to a larger problem. 

"What has happened, and will continue to happen with these women is not isolated to Val-d'Or," said Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come of the Grand Council of the Crees.

"This is a provincewide crisis needing the attention of the province."

Coon Come was joined by Ghislain Picard chief of the Assembly of the First Nations of Quebec and Labrador, as well as several leaders of Indigenous communities around Val-d'Or.

Adrienne Jérôme, of the Anishinabe Nation of Lac Simon, said the government needs to end the "vicious cycle of under-funding" Indigenous social services.

Quebec Native Affairs Minister Geoffrey Kelley says it's time to try to fix the problems that led to the allegations of sexual assaults by police in Val d'Or. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

Time to move forward, government says

Quebec's Liberal government has, so far, given no sign it will reconsider its opposition to holding an independent inquiry.

Instead, it notes, concerns about police treatment of Indigenous women in Quebec will be investigated as part of the federal inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women.

Speaking on CBC Radio's Daybreak on Monday, Quebec Native Affairs Minister Geoffrey Kelley said it is time to move forward and work on fixing the problems that led to the allegations.

When asked whether he believed the women's stories, Kelley said he has "always thought where there's smoke there's fire, so obviously there were incidents."

But Kelley said the focus must now be on the future, not the past.

"I say we have to look to improve things," he said.

"How we can sit around a table and find ways to move forward? Because that has to be the next step."

The province needs to tackle broader problems with the criminal justice system and ensure Indigenous women are protected in vulnerable situations, Kelley added.

He said the federal inquiry would be the best forum to deal with those concerns, pointing out there will be a hearing in Val-d'Or and police officers can be compelled to testify.

"I think we have a vehicle there for people to be able to express themselves," he said.

Val d'Or residents protest the Crown's decision to only press charges in two of 37 files concerning allegations of physical and sexual abuse by police. (CBC)

Double standard?

Indigenous leaders worry the federal inquiry will be unable to cover the full range of their issues with policing in Quebec.

The province can't set the federal inquiry's terms of reference, Picard said, meaning there is little guarantee it will tackle problems specific to Quebec.

Coon Come added that there seems to be a "double standard" in the province's response to public crises.

Following allegations of sexual assault against a Liberal MNA, the government unveiled a multi-million dollar plan to combat rape culture, he said. And following revelations of police spying on journalists, it quickly called for a commission of inquiry. 

"Yet the government of Quebec continues to resist and ignores the overwhelming evidence of the need for a provincial judicial inquiry — a revision of how justice is administered for and to Indigenous populations," Coon Come said. 

"The message is loud and clear: The justice system has failed these women and will continue to fail them." 

With files from CBC Montreal's Daybreak