Quebec's Indigenous inquiry to hear from Cree communities in coming weeks

The Viens Commission is heading to the Cree community of Mistissini as it continues to collect testimony on how Indigenous people are treated by some public services in Quebec.

Viens Commission set to begin 2 weeks of hearings in Mistissini, Que. on June 11

Three key members of the Viens Commission: prosecutor-in-chief Christian Leblanc, left, chair Jacques Viens, and Janet Mark, coordinator for Indigenous communities. (TC Média - Myriam Grenier)

The public inquiry into the treatment of Indigenous people in Quebec is about to kick off two weeks of hearings in the Cree community of Mistissini, beginning June 11.

They will be the first and only full hearings held on Cree territory.

"We are very glad that Cree citizens have raised their hands to share sometimes very personal experiences," said Christian Leblanc, prosecutor-in-chief with the Viens Commission.

The commission is named after retired Quebec Superior Court Justice Jacques Viens, who is leading the inquiry.

It is looking at how Indigenous people are treated by six public services, including police, correctional, legal, health and social services, as well as youth protection services.

The inquiry was launched in 2016 after Radio-Canada reported allegations that police in Val-d'Or had mistreated Indigenous women.

'It needs to be said'

"What the Cree have to say, their perspective is different from other nations. It needs to be said. It needs to be part of our evidence," said Leblanc. "So that we can have a very good picture of the whole province."

The Cree Nation Government, under then-Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come, was instrumental in pressuring the provincial government to hold the inquiry. It has been highly involved in the commission's work from the beginning, helping identify witnesses, according to Leblanc.

Melissa Saganash, director of Cree-Quebec relations for the Grand Council of the Crees, and Matthew Coon Come, former Grand Chief of the Cree, testified at the Viens Commission in 2017. (Photo: Radio-Canada)

"They invited us to have [hearings] on Cree lands," said Leblanc.

The witnesses who will testify publicly at the Mistissini hearings have already shared their experiences with the commission. They will be coming from other Cree communities, as well as nearby Atikamekw and Innu communities.

There will also be a team of statement-takers in Mistissini if people are interested in sharing their experiences for the first time, said Leblanc.

Nemaska chief encourages Cree to participate

For Thomas Jolly, chief of the Cree Nation of Nemaska, it's important for people to stand up and engage with the provincial inquiry.

It is not right when we are mistreated just because we are Indigenous.- Thomas Jolly,  Nemaska  chief 

"I know there are people who have never shared their own stories of how they felt they were mistreated," said Jolly. "I really want people to start talking. It is not right when we are mistreated just because we are Indigenous."

Thomas Jolly is chief of the Cree Nation of Nemaska, in Quebec. (CBC)

Earlier this year, the Quebec government announced it had extended the commission's deadline to submit a final report by 10 months. To date, there have been close to 400 witnesses — 154 of them regular citizens. There have been 20 weeks of hearings and 527 files opened, according to Leblanc.

He said that, because of the commission's need to investigate each incident, people need to share their experiences soon if they want to be part of the commission's evidence.

"The clock is ticking," he said. "People need to raise their hands."

Leblanc said the commission will continue to take in testimony until the end of this year.

The commission's final report is due in September 2019.

The hearings in Mistissini will be held from June 11-15 and June 18-20 at the Neoskweskau Complex.