Vitriol in Val d'Or: How homelessness and petty crime have reignited racial tensions
Anger bubbles over in mining community in Quebec's Abitibi-Témiscamingue region
WARNING: This story contains vulgar language.
Most municipal council meetings go unnoticed. Not so for one recently in Val d'Or, Que., when fear, anger and racism bubbled to the surface and a shouting match erupted with hate on full display.
"There's an Indian pissing outside!" cried one man, a resident.
"It is always the Indigenous," a business owner said, outraged.
The city of about 33,000 is grappling with resentment from residents over homelessness and petty crime, a situation that appears to be pitting leaders against each other and reopening painful old wounds.
"I was utterly shocked and in disbelief that in 2023, the population has no more filter in terms of the racism and the racial remarks," said Johanne Lacasse, who works for the Native Friendship Centre in town.
Val d'Or, which means valley of gold, is a small city 530 kilometres north of Montreal. It owes its existence to the precious metal, with mines scattered over the area.
But long before that, the region was home to First Nations communities: Anishinaabe and Cree among others.
The relationship between the mining community and those nations has been sometimes collaborative but often fraught.
"Val d'Or is a hub for the north and it's also a service network for the Indigenous, Anishinaabe communities surrounding it," said Édith Cloutier, the executive director of the Native Friendship Centre.
"Since Val d'Or was Val d'Or, there has always been that interaction of Indigenous people in the city."
Some, though, arrive in the city only to find that housing is unavailable or too expensive for their budget, Cloutier said.
Some end up on the street.
In recent weeks, residents have complained about feeling unsafe. They have protested what they say is an increase in petty crime and demanded that police and elected officials do something about the homeless population.
Mayor Céline Brindamour says there has been an increase in crimes such as theft, public intoxication and harassment. Provincial police did not respond to requests for statistics.
Brindamour has called on the provincial government for help with resources.
But others say that talk of crime has allowed for open discrimination against the Indigenous population. Around half of the city's homeless population are Indigenous people.
Victor Thursky says he's experienced that racism first-hand.
"I don't want to be a racially discriminative person. I treat everybody equally. But as a person living on the streets, I experienced that, which is not too good at all," he said, sitting in a living room in La Piaule, one of Val d'Or's homeless shelters.
"People misjudge me. I know what it's like to be misjudged and I feel like I was belittled, you know?"
Thursky is originally from the Algonquin (one of the Anishinaabe nations) reserve of Rapid Lake. Around his neck, he wears a medicine pouch attached to a necklace, for luck, he says.
For decades, he's been battling alcoholism and, as a result, he found himself without a roof over his head living in Val d'Or.
Recently, he went to get medication at the pharmacy downtown but instead, he got kicked out.
"'Get out of here,' he says. 'I don't give an eff about you native.' That's what he told me," Thursky said
"I can't even go to 3rd avenue there."
The street Thursky is referring to is lined with businesses and has become the eye of the storm.
Opening old wounds
Residents say they want the police to do more to rein in crime.
"On top of homelessness, there was delinquency and this is what kind of took people by surprise," said Brindamour, who's been mayor for the past year and a half.
"That had people saying 'hey, I don't feel comfortable walking around in my downtown area.'"
It's what led Brindamour to reach out to the Quebec government. Except, something unexpected happened. Rather than offering to help, the local MNA, who was attending the council meeting, snapped that it was time the city did something to take care of the troublemakers.
"Serious measures have to be taken," Pierre Dufour told the mayor.
"It's not the government that has to come solve the issue."
Then, for many, he twisted the knife deeper and placed the blame for some of the division and unease on the city administration's reaction to an 2015 investigative report by Radio-Canada that thrust Val d'Or under a harsh spotlight.
The investigation by Enquête detailed allegations of abuse, including sexual assault of Indigenous women by provincial police officers in Val d'Or.
Eight officers were immediately suspended. Two were quickly cleared. The six others were off work for a year but were eventually cleared as well. No charges were laid and a group of 41 police officers sued Radio-Canada for just over $2 million. The case is due to be heard next year.
"It was a show full of lies which attacked very honest police," Dufour said at the meeting.
It was, nevertheless, a moment of reckoning and led the province to launch the Viens Commission, to investigate how Indigenous people are treated in Quebec.
The commission concluded they face widespread systemic discrimination, including being racially profiled by the provincial police who patrol Val d'Or.
Dufour says the city should have pushed back and defended its officers, saying that cops who don't feel backed will do the "strict minimum" when it comes to enforcing the law.
While many residents applauded Dufour's statements at city hall, others were disgusted.
Cloutier, of the Native Friendship Centre, described the CAQ MNA's comments as "unacceptable and disgraceful."
"We feel that we were let down. And I say 'we' because we are Indigenous people in this friendship centre," she said.
"We walk side-by-side with those who are left out in society, be it homeless people, be it Indigenous women."
Dufour apologized amid calls for his resignation, but the impact of his comments still stings for many.
Working toward solutions
Cloutier says things have improved in Val d'Or since the Viens Commission, despite what it may seem.
"It's small steps but a combination of many steps by many actors," she said.
"It created a direct, bilateral relationship with the Quebec government."
Cloutier describes the struggles in the city as a societal problem with the Native Friendship Centre at the heart of change.
Construction will soon begin on a building that will offer transitional housing to Indigenous people hoping to get off the street.
It will provide 20 units, along with access to public services as well as cultural teachings and events.
The centre itself, set to celebrate 50 years next year, will also be expanded.
"We feel like we are contributing to the social transformation of Val d'Or and we have," Cloutier said.
For others at the centre though, this latest controversy is a step backward.
"There's a lot of healing that will need to happen," said Johanne Lacasse.