Viens Commission waking up Quebecers to plight of Indigenous peoples, says Huron-Wendat grand chief

"It's never been a love story," the Huron-Wendat grand chief said of the relationship between First Nations and Quebec society at large, explaining why the work of Quebec's travelling Viens Commission is of "utmost importance."

'It's never been a love story,' Konrad Sioui says as hearings begin on his ancestral territory

Grand Chief Konrad Sioui says the Viens Commission has given First Nations people a chance "to speak and explain themselves." (Peter Tardif/CBC)

The work of Quebec's Viens Commission, which is travelling around the province to hear Indigenous peoples' testimony about their mistreatment by police and other public servants, is of "utmost importance," says Grand Chief Konrad Sioui, who heads the Huron-Wendat community of Wendake.

Sitting next to Justice Jacques Viens at the start of nine days of hearings in Quebec City Tuesday, Sioui said the hearings give First Nations people a chance "to speak and explain themselves."

Sioui enumerated some of the challenges First Nations face, such as getting more of their people into post-secondary education, resolving the membership issues of women "thrown out because they married outsiders," and tackling "the highest suicide rate in the world."

"We can no longer pay that price," he said.

Konrad Sioui, left, summarized some of the issues facing First Nations people in Quebec at the opening of Quebec City hearings of the commission led by Justice Jacques Viens, right. (CBC)

Sioui spoke of a young First Nations girl who can't look at herself in the mirror "because she isn't white."

"We want her to look in the mirror and say, 'I am beautiful,'" Sioui said.

Not a love story

Later in an interview with CBC News, Sioui said the Viens Commission is forcing Quebecers to strip away the image they have of themselves as more accepting of Indigenous people than other Canadians.

"You know: we were intermarried. We were not like those bad English people."

"It's been a love story," he said. "But ... it was really, really not true at all. It was quite the opposite, and it's never been a love story."

Sioui said he compliments Premier Philippe Couillard for creating the Viens Commission after repeated allegations of abuse of Indigenous women by police officers in Val-d'Or, which failed to lead to the laying of any charges.

The travelling commission has allowed Quebec society at large "to discover that these problems occur in their own backyard and see that there is racism. There is discrimination. There is rejection."

Sioui said the poor health and living conditions of First Nations people in Quebec come as a surprise to some people.

Others do not believe the problems exist.

"They still put the blame on First Nations," he said.

Nation-building should come first, Sioui says

Sioui was involved in a historic effort more than 20 years ago by the federal government to address the issues confronting Canada and its relationship to Indigenous peoples, the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, co-chaired by Georges Erasmus and René Dussault.

"All the answers are there," Sioui said, noting Erasmus-Dussault's 4,000-page report, which set out a 20-year agenda for change, made over 400 recommendations.

The first recommendation was nation-building, he recalled.

However, the Chrétien government chose instead to focus on the healing process, which still goes on, he said.

"We could not claim our self-determination while at the same time we are sitting in a wheelchair," Sioui said.

Viens acknowledges ancestral territory

In his response to Sioui's remarks, Viens noted that while his mandate was triggered by the allegations made in Val-d'Or, the problems have existed "longer than that."

"We are here in Quebec City, in Huron-Wendat territory," Viens said.

Sioui was pleased with the acknowledgement that Quebec City lies in ancestral Huron-Wendat territory and said that recognition by Canadian authorities is a recent development.

The first to make that gesture was former Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne, when she met Premier Philippe Couillard at the Quebec National Assembly last year, he said.

Former Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne thanked the Huron-Wendat Nation for welcoming her to its traditional territory at the end of a joint cabinet meeting between Quebec and Ontario on Sept. 22, 2017. Grand Chief Konrad Sioui said Wynne was the first Canadian leader to make that gesture. (The Canadian Press)

"First of all, let me thank the Grand Chief Konrad Sioui and the whole Huron-Wendat Nation for welcoming us on their traditional land," Sioui recalled Wynne saying.

"We almost fell off our chair," he said.

Afterwards, when he spoke to the premier about Wynne's remarks, Couillard responded, "Oh, Konrad, you know, I would have said that anyway."

Ever since Wynne's gesture, Sioui said, wherever they go in the province, Couillard and his ministers acknowledge the First Nation that claims the territory they are visiting.

"We feel proud of that," Sioui said.