For Val-d'Or Indigenous community, hope and frustration as MMIW inquiry begins
Sindy Ruperthouse's family is searching for her as allegations of abuse taint relations with police
As the federal inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women begins its work, the parents of a woman who disappeared from Val-d'Or, Que., are watching closely — but fear it may be too late for their own daughter.
"Maybe it can help improve police investigations," said Emily Ruperthouse Wylde, mother of Sindy Ruperthouse, at her home in Pikogan, Que., about 75 km north of Val-d'Or in northeastern Quebec.
"I hope it will, but I don't know."
Sindy Ruperthouse was last seen at the hospital in Val-d'Or in 2014. She had serious injuries, but was unwilling to file a police report. Her family believes police have not done enough to find her.
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Allegations of police abuse
Ruperthouse's disappearance has had reverberations throughout the region.
Last October, while Radio-Canada's investigative program was looking into how police handled her case, troubling allegations of abuse by Quebec provincial police came to the surface.
Several Indigenous women alleged they were taken into police cruisers, driven out of town and left to walk home. Some alleged they were forced to perform sex acts.
"We went through a crisis in terms of people just being in shock, then people being angry, then people grieving," said Edith Cloutier, executive director of the Val-d'Or Native Friendship Centre.
Cloutier said it forced the community to take a "hard look at where we are at in terms of relations and acceptance of one another."
The criminal investigation was handed to Montreal police, but so far there have been no criminal charges.
David Kistabish, chief of the Abitibiwinni First Nation, says the process is taking too long.
"The victims are standing by and they are waiting and they are still scared about what's going on and what's going to happen next," he said.
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Calls for a Quebec inquiry
The national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls officially begins its work today, but Chief Commissioner Marion Buller says it's too early to say if what happened in Val-d'Or will be part of it. She says that's something the commissioners must decide together, but they are open to hearing from alleged victims and their families.
But Cloutier and others are also calling for a provincial inquiry, something the Quebec government has said it will not launch.
While Cloutier supports the federal inquiry, she worries the Val-d'Or cases would not get the attention they deserve.
"Just shovelling an Indian problem in the federal's backyard, for us is not an answer for true justice for those Indigenous women here in Val-d'Or who are still in all of this turmoil," she said.
Despite what she sees as an insufficient response from the province, Cloutier said the allegations have brought some changes as the community tries to heal.
Provincial police cruisers are now equipped with cameras, and the province committed funding for a drop-in centre for women, a homeless shelter, and social housing units for Aboriginal families.
Val-d'Or Mayor Pierre Corbeil said city councillors and administrative staff took training to help them understand the history and realities of the region's significant Indigenous population.
'I try to look at the positive things'
Recently, Sindy Ruperthouse's family has taken matters into its own hands, organizing their own searches because they don't believe police are doing enough.
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Her father, John Wylde, is hopeful the inquiry will bring change and shed light on systemic problems. But even after meeting with one of the commissioners, he is not convinced it can make a difference for him.
"They are not going to bring my daughter back," said Wylde, as he looked through photos of his daughter at his home in Pikogan. For Ruperthouse's mother, these photos offer a sense of comfort.
"I try to look at the positive things," said Ruperthouse Wylde. "I think of her often. I hear her talking, her laugh."
Ruperthouse's father said he is ready to share his experience, if asked to participate in the national inquiry.
"When we talk and tell our story, we feel good after that because somebody listened to us," he said.