North·In Depth

Tackling racism a long-term effort in Val-d'Or, Que.

In 2015, several Indigenous women came forward with allegations of discrimination and sexual abuse at the hands of the Val-d'Or detachment of the Sûreté du Québec, plunging the city into an unprecedented crisis and leading to a boycott of the city by surrounding Cree and Anishinaabe communities who live, work or shop there.

Next municipal council expected to continue with progress against discrimination

La Marche Gabriel Commanda walk is hosted each March by the Val-d'Or Native Friendship Centre as part of anti-racism week. As municipal elections Nov. 7 will force a change in leadership in the northern, Quebec city, some are calling for a renewed commitment to anti-racism work started in the wake of crisis in 2015. (Marie-Hélène Paquin/Radio-Canada)

When outgoing Val-d'Or Mayor Pierre Corbeil first moved to the Abitibi region in the late 1970s as a young dentist, he wasn't allowed to treat Anishinaabe people who lived just 30 kilometres down the road in Lac Simon. 

Under the rules of the Indian Act, the residents of Lac Simon only had access to a travelling dentist with a mobile clinic once a month. 

"Just to give you an idea of how present the reflex towards isolation — almost confinement — was back then," said Corbeil. 

Now, on the eve of his retirement after 33 years in municipal and provincial politics, he says important progress has been made to improve dialogue and address some of the  issues of racism and discrimination that were brought into sharp focus in 2015. 

That's when several Indigenous women came forward with allegations of discrimination and sexual abuse at the hands of the Val-d'Or detachment of the Sûreté du Québec, plunging the mining town 600 kilometres north of Montreal into an unprecedented crisis. 

It led to a boycott of Val-d'Or by surrounding Cree and Anishinaabe communities who live, work or shop there. 

Corbeil considers the 2015 crisis a defining moment of his time as mayor.

We had to re-establish the communication.- Pierre Corbeil, outgoing Val-d'Or mayor

"We had to re-establish the communication at a high level," he said.

The city made sensitivity training available — and mandatory — for elected officials, put in place an action plan and formed a committee that includes Indigenous and other minority community leaders, police and municipal representatives. 

Part of the action plan involves addressing some of the social issues caused by the legacy of residential schools, such as homelessness and substance abuse. 

The city also created an anonymous telephone line where people can report experiences of discrimination and it joined the International Coalition of Inclusive and Sustainable Cities, which was created by UNESCO to assist local authorities in combating discrimination. 

Outgoing Val-d'Or Mayor Pierre Corbeil, left, receives an Anishinaabe drum from Oscar Kistabish, President of the Val-d'Or Native Friendship Centre at Corbeil's last municipal council meeting on Oct. 4. (Marc-André Landry/Radio-Canada)

"I think the openness and dialogue are well engaged," said Corbeil. He says the work must and will continue with the new mayor and municipal council who will be chosen in municipal elections November 7.

One of the main Indigenous partners in these efforts has been the Val-d'Or Native Friendship Centre, which has been in operation for close to 50 years.

Édith Cloutier, executive director of the centre, says there have been noticeable improvements in collaborations and communication with officials at the city, as well as with some public entities such as health and social services, public security and even police. 

'Like a roller coaster ride': Cloutier

But she says more work is needed at the citizen to citizen level. 

"The relationship between Indigenous people and the other citizens of Val-d'Or … It's like a roller coaster ride," said Cloutier. 

She adds there is still too much misunderstanding about the roots of Indigenous homelessness and too much discrimination against Indigenous peoples trying to find housing in the city.

Édith Cloutier is the executive director of the Val-d'Or Native Friendship Centre. (Marika Wheeler/ CBC)

"We have our challenges in terms of building positive relationships at different levels," she said, adding she will look to the next municipal council and new mayor to continue to address racism and discrimination and to build bridges. 

"It's an ongoing relationship that needs to be cared for if we want to continue moving forward in a positive way," said Cloutier. 

Lloyd Polson, a Lac Simon resident who works in Val-d'Or, says incidents of racism and discrimination have gone down since the crisis in 2015. 

Though Polson says he hasn't been the target of racism, he believes Indigenous people who struggle with homelessness or substance abuse are still targeted by police and others. 

Lloyd Polson lives in Lac Simon and works in Val-d'Or. He says incidents of racism in Val -d'Or have gone down since 2015. (Marika Wheeler/CBC)

"A couple of months after the allegations (against the SQ) there was a lot of racism, but personally I didn't experience that," said Polson. He says, from what he's heard, it's different for those Indigenous people who struggle with addictions.

"For those who drink, for those people, maybe they [are targeted for] racism."

Candidates for mayor

Both candidates who are running to replace Corbeil as mayor say they are committed to continuing the work he started.

"I want to continue because it's the way to work, to be open, to participate and to encourage the relationship," said Céline Brindamour, who has 25 years in politics, including several years as the city's deputy mayor. Over the years she has collaborated with the friendship centre on several projects.

She says there have been a lot of improvements in the relationships with Indigenous communities since 2015 and she wants to continue to push the files forward with a community-based approach. 

The other candidate for mayor is Léandre Gervais, a retired engineer who has one term as a city councillor. 

"I'm totally against racism," said Gervais. "I'm very good friends with Cree people and Anishinaabe people."

During a debate hosted by the local chamber of commerce, Gervais said it was important to make a distinction between homelessness and delinquency. 

"We have homelessness, but we also have delinquency. We need to report those people to the Sûreté du Québec," said Gervais, adding he would like to see more mental health support for the population.

The friendship centre and outgoing mayor have identified a parcel of land on 4th avenue between 7th and 6th streets, to build a 20-unit transitional housing project to help give Indigenous peoples the support they need to get out of homelessness. 

The project is called Anwatan-Miguam, which means "house of calm waters" in Anishinaabe. A major obstacle for the project remains federal funding and Cloutier says she'll be looking for a renewed commitment to that project and others from the incoming mayor and council. 

Tackling racism requires a long-term approach: Cloutier

As for fostering more understanding between Indigenous and non-Indigenous citizens of Val-d'Or, Cloutier says she's playing the long game.

Twenty years ago, the friendship centre opened a daycare which offers an Anishinaabe program and has Indigenous educators. It is open to children from all walks of life. 

The Val-d'Or Native Friendship Centre opened the CPE Abinodjic Miguam 20 years ago. The Anishinaabe program with Indigenous educators is open to non-Indigenous and Indigenous children alike. (Julie Marceau/Radio-Canada)

"Non-native children  mix with Indigenous children," said Cloutier. 

Now 20 years on, those first little young people are young adults who have been exposed to the real 6,000-year culture and language of the land, said Cloutier.

They are the business people, landlords and the health-care providers of tomorrow, she added.

"These are the long-term actions that bring about societal transformation in a city like Val-d'Or," said Cloutier. 

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