'Their stories must not be forgotten': Viens Commission closes with plea for Val-d'Or women

The president of Native Women Quebec, the last witness at Quebec's inquiry into the treatment of Indigenous, is asking the inquiry to focus its report on policing and the justice system.

Viviane Michel asks inquiry to 'not drown out' the stories of Val-d'Or women in their recommendations

Viviane Michel, president of Quebec Native Women, said without a real apology from police in Quebec, reconciliation will not be possible. (Benjamin Shingler/CBC)

Nearly two years after she first pleaded for Quebec to take action to protect Indigenous women, Viviane Michel is now asking the government to not "drown out" the voices of the women who spoke out about alleged police mistreatment in Val-d'Or. 

Michel, the president of Native Women Quebec, was the last person to testify before the Viens Commission Friday before the inquiry's closing ceremony.

She was among the advocates who pushed for the inquiry in 2015, after a Radio-Canada investigation reported several allegations of police misconduct against Indigenous women in Val-d'Or.

"Their stories must not be forgotten. They decided to make this sacrifice to make sure other women didn't have to live through what they went through," said Michel.

In Enquête's report, broadcast in October 2015, women alleged they were taken on "starlight tours" — driven out of town by police and left to walk back — and suffered other types of discrimination at the hands of provincial police officers.

Under mounting political pressure, the former Liberal government launched the inquiry in December 2016.

Its mandate was to look into discrimination and racism within public services, including health care, youth protection, the correctional system, justice and policing.

Justice Jacques Viens is expected to submit his recommendations to the government in September 2019. (Radio-Canada/Émélie Rivard-Boudreau)

Michel said by incorporating all these elements, "the strategy of the government of Quebec was to drown out this tragedy within an investigation with a larger mandate."

"We did not want the issues women in Val-d'Or were facing to be diluted."

1,188 testimonials

Retired Justice Jacques Viens, who presided over the inquiry, acknowledged Michel's concerns in his closing comments.

Viens said the commission "learned there are not only problems in Val-d'Or," but by having expanded its focus, he'll be able to make recommendations on systemic issues throughout Indigenous communities, such as language barriers, faults in the education system and housing shortages.

"And we must recognize the courage of the women who spoke out and who were at the forefront of all this," Viens said, before thanking those all the participants who testified before the inquiry.

A total of 1,188 stories and expert opinions were shared over the 38 weeks of hearings.

Held mainly in Val-d'Or, the commission also travelled to Mani-Utenam, Mistissini, Montreal, Kuujjuaq and Kuujjuarrapik in northern Quebec.

In all, 277 citizens came forward with their personal stories of having dealt with police, hospital staff and other public services, including youth protection agencies and the justice system.

Viens described some of what he'd heard as "horrific."

In several cases, witnesses described incidents of discrimination that had been life-altering. 

One Inuk mother said her son's injuries hadn't been taken seriously by medical staff, testifying that Levi Pirti Kumarluk would still be alive if he'd been non-Inuk.

'Respect us,' says Indigenous leader

The chief of the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador (APNQL), Ghislain Picard, appeared four times before Viens.

On Thursday, Picard addressed the commissioner one last time, saying he could issue a thousand recommendations, but also just a single one.

"Respect us," he said.

AFNQL Chief Ghislain Picard told the inquiry commissioner, Jacques Viens, in June 2017 that Indigenous people in Quebec are so conditioned to being discriminated against they consider it 'normal' behaviour. (Viens Commission)

The APNQL is demanding a complete overhaul of Quebec's government bodies to ensure Indigenous rights are recognized by every ministry.

It is also calling for independent police forces within Indigenous communities, or, at the very least, cultural training for officers who are called to work with Indigenous people.

The APNQL said the government needs to adopt and implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), a promise Premier François Legault committed to during the election campaign.

"For me, it's very clear the gap that divides our people is deep, and we need to speak out," Picard said.