Val-d'Or is forcing Quebec to think about big problems

Systemic racism was a term on everyone's lips in Val-d'Or. But in the corridors of power, few dare utter the words. Why?

What we talk about when we talk about systemic racism

Protests were held in Val-d'Or after the Crown said Friday that no one would be held criminally responsible for the abuse close to a dozen women say they suffered at the hands of provincial police. (CBC)

As the crow flies, Val-d'Or is about 750 kilometres from Quebec City. In the distance between the northern Quebec mining town and the provincial capital, systemic racism goes from daily reality to political taboo. 

"Systemic racism" was the term uttered repeatedly by Indigenous leaders who live in the communities around Val-d'Or, and who came into town last week to hear from Crown prosecutors.

When an Indigenous woman makes an allegation, we now see, nothing is taken seriously- Vivian Michel, Quebec Native Women

But in the gilded halls of the National Assembly, few are willing to accept that such a thing as systemic racism exists. 

It was the explanation Indigenous leaders offered upon learning from the Crown that no one would be held criminally responsible for the abuse close to a dozen women say they suffered at the hands of provincial police. 

What else, these leaders wondered, could describe the justice system's inability to respond to the womens' testimonies of violence and intimidation. 

"When an Indigenous woman makes an allegation, we now see, nothing is taken seriously," said Viviane Michel, who heads Quebec Native Women, an advocacy group. "The system doesn't move."

That perception was reinforced by an independent observer who audited the investigation by Montreal police into the complaints of police abuse. The report by Fannie Lafontaine, a human rights lawyer, concluded there "exists systemic racism within law enforcement towards Indigenous people."

Joyce Thomas, right, was one of the women who came forward to allege that provincial police in Val-d'Or, Que. abused her. (Radio-Canada )

Like many mining towns across northern Canada, Val-d'Or, pop. 31,862, is close geographically to a number of First Nations communities. 

And people here say the allegations have strained relations between the town and the local Algonquin and Cree populations. Some Indigenous people are even calling for a boycott of the municipality for events and meetings.

Government avoiding 'systemic racism' label

But the provincial legislature seems reluctant to discuss racism. 

Parliamentary reporters in Quebec City noticed last week that both Public Security Minister Martin Coiteux and Native Affairs Minister Geoffrey Kelley refused to endorse the concept of "systemic racism" when asked about Lafontaine's findings.

They preferred instead to speak of "social issues" or a "larger perspective" that needed to be considered. 

That reticence was shared by members of the opposition. François Legault, leader of the Coalition Avenir Quebec, said he didn't "like the word 'systemic.'" 

As for the Parti Québécois, Indigenous affairs critic Alexandre Cloutier would only say that the events in Val-d'Or raised the question of whether systemic racism was an issue among Quebec police. He left reporters guessing about the answer.

Ada Chevrier of Timiskaming First Nation made the two and a half-hour drive to Val-d'Or to join a protest outside the town's courthouse on Friday. (Jonathan Montpetit/CBC)

Ghislain Picard, chief of the Assembly of the First Nations of Quebec and Labrador, attributes this reluctance to talk about systemic racism to the government's opposition to an independent inquiry into the relations between Indigeous Quebecers and police. 

'A government in complete denial'

To date, the Liberals have been steadfast in their refusal to hold such an inquiry. They maintain it would simply rehash the work of the federal inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women, which has promised to look into the Val-d'Or allegations.

"They have refused from the beginning to acknowledge that there is systemic racism," Picard said of the Quebec Liberals. "This is a government in complete denial."

Indigenous leaders, though, have not been the only members of civil society pushing the government to take a sustained look at systemic racism.

A group called Québec Inclusif, based in Montreal, has also called for a public commission on institutional discrimination. They have the backing of the small progressive party Québec Solidaire and several prominent intellectuals.

While the government has indicated it is receptive to the group's concerns — which include discriminatory hiring practices — it has yet to respond to their specific demand. 

Quebec Native Affairs Minister Geoffrey Kelley in 2015 after responding to the Opposition on allegations of sexual assaults by police in Val-d'Or. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

Is there, perhaps, a reason other than political stubbornness for ducking the question of systemic racism? 

Our system of laws is designed to hold individuals -— people or corporate entities — responsible. The problem with systemic racism is that there is no Oz behind the curtain, pulling the strings. 

'Believe these women'

Responsibility for such types of injustice doesn't lie with one person, ​advocates suggest.

Structural injustice, the American philosopher Iris Marion Young once wrote, "is an unintended but unjust consequence of the actions of millions of differently positioned individuals ... all usually acting on normal and accepted rules." 

Asked how non-Indigenous Quebecers should respond to the Crown's decision, one Indigenous leader said: "Show these women, these victims, that there is someone, somewhere, who believes them." (Jonathan Montpetit/CBC)

Their argument is that confronting systemic racism may entail accepting that some of our most trenchant social problems are not anyone's fault, but​ everyone's faults​— some more than others, to be sure, but each of us, if only a little.

The Indigenous leaders of Val-d'Or, and their advocates, have proposed a smaller step, one they nevertheless believe will help bend what Martin Luther King, Jr. called the arc of the moral universe back toward justice.

"We issue a message to the Quebec population to believe these women," Michel said, after her meeting with the Crown prosecutors in Val-d'Or.

"Show these women, these victims, that there is someone, somewhere, who believes them."


Jonathan Montpetit is a Senior Investigative Journalist with CBC News, where he covers social movements and democracy. You can send him tips at