Police must build relationships with Indigenous Montrealers, advocates say

The Viens commission heard stories about police officers allegedly pulling a Cree woman down by her hood while trying to arrest her, then ticketing her before sending her to hospital, and approaching people in groups of five or six to tell them to empty a bottle.

Focus on positive interactions, not ticketing, Viens commission hears

Vicky Baldo, co-chair of the Montreal Urban Aboriginal Strategy Network, and Rachel Deutsch, a social worker with the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal, testify at the Viens commission. Deutsch said police should take a more collaborative approach when dealing with Indigenous people. (Viens commission)

Outreach workers say police should focus on building positive relationships and improving their interactions with Indigenous Montrealers instead of handing them tickets.

On its third day of hearings in Montreal, the Viens commission is looking at the relationship between members of Indigenous communities and the Montreal police service (SPVM).

Wednesday's testimony from four women who work for community organizations focused on two subjects: sensitivity training for officers and the revitalization of Cabot Square, a park at the corner of Ste-Catherine Street and Atwater Avenue that has long served as a meeting place for Indigenous people in the city — some of whom are homeless.

The commission heard stories about police officers allegedly pulling a Cree woman down by her hood while trying to arrest her, then ticketing her before sending her to hospital, as well as approaching people in groups of five or six to tell them to empty out bottles they're drinking from.

"There should be a really different approach to policing," said Rachel Deutsch, a social worker with Montreal's Native Women's Shelter. 

"They need to build relationships with Indigenous people — particularly Indigenous women, who are the most at risk in terms of safety issues — rather than focusing on ticketing or adversarial relationships."

During consultations around the Cabot Square project, one police officer suggested that people who frequent the square be tagged with numbers, "because their names were not important to him," said Allison Reid, the co-ordinator of the Montreal Urban Aboriginal Strategy Network.

In a statement, the SPVM declined to comment on the day's testimony, saying it will wait until proceedings wrap up and recommendations are made before giving interviews.

Victims are 'used to it,' advocate says

Deutsch said that in the case of the Cree woman, the officers allegedly pulled her hood so hard that she fell on her back. The woman wore a colostomy bag and was injured in the fall.

The officers then allegedly yelled at her in French, which the woman doesn't understand, Deutsch said.

The woman, who had mental health issues, started expressing suicidal thoughts and was taken to hospital — but not before she was given a ticket.
Cabot Square underwent $6 million in renovations, and reopened in 2015. Part of the goal in revamping the square was to help empower Indigenous Montrealers. (Shari Okeke/CBC)

Nakuset, the executive director of Montreal's Native Women's Shelter, said when she told the woman she would push to make sure her case was addressed, the woman was surprised.

"The people who are being victimized are used to it. They don't think anyone cares, they don't think anyone's going to fight for them," Nakuset said.

Along with Vicky Boldo, co-chair of the Montreal Urban Aboriginal Strategy Network, Nakuset went to speak to police about the incident.

They were told that after conducting an internal investigation, the officers said they felt as though they were saving the woman's life, so the case was closed.

Nakuset and Boldo were told to file a complaint with Quebec's police ethics commission.

Difficult training sessions

The sensitivity training was part of a historic agreement signed between the Indigenous community and the Montreal police service in 2015. It proved to be difficult to both develop and implement.

The agreement included four components, and according to Nakuset, three of those parts are "failing miserably," including the sensitivity training — which was abruptly called off last year.

Nakuset, the executive director of Montreal's Native Women's Shelter, said sensitivity training with Montreal Police officers to improve relations with Indigenous people failed 'miserably.' (Radio-Canada)

They worked with an Indigenous psychologist, among others, and looked at what other forces were doing across the country to create an outline for the training.

The people they consulted had cultural knowledge and, perhaps most importantly, were chosen by the community, Deutsch said.

In February 2017, a group of about 120 officers were assembled to receive the training. Many of them didn't pay attention; some laughed during the presentation, Deutsch said.

Boldo, who gave the training, said it was a challenge to figure out how to be heard and be respected.

She said she was told that what they were trying to do may work in universities, but it wouldn't work with police officers.

Boldo called the experience "disheartening."

Required reading

Nakuset said the SPVM should be required to read the recommendations from the commission, and should be held accountable if it doesn't heed them.

Nakuset, Boldo and Reid will all be back in front of the commission next week to talk about the youth protection system, among other subjects.

The commission, headed by retired Quebec Superior Court Justice Jacques Viens, is travelling across the province looking into the treatment of Indigenous people seeking public services in Quebec.

The commission is in Montreal for two weeks, and then will be back in March for two more weeks. 

The inquiry was recently given a 10-month extension to submit a final report, which is now due in September 2019.