Policing, housing still need to be addressed by Quebec Indigenous commission: Cree chief

Grand Chief Abel Bosum praised the Viens Commission for its work, after more than a week and a half of hearings in the Cree community of Mistissini, Que. However, he says there is still more work to be done.

Grand Chief Abel Bosum says the Viens Commission is 'making a difference' though

Abel Bosum, grand chief of the Grand Council of the Crees, left, and retired Quebec Superior Court Justice Jacques Viens. (Commission d’enquête)

The head of the Grand Council of the Crees says an inquiry into how Indigenous people are treated by some public services in Quebec has already made positive changes, but much more still needs to be done.

In his closing remarks Wednesday, at the end of a week and a half of hearings in the Cree community of Mistissini, Grand Chief Abel Bosum praised the Viens Commission's proactive approach in making interim recommendations in "urgent cases."

The Viens commission has been conducting hearings for the past year. Its mandate is to examine ways of improving Indigenous access to public services in Quebec.

In September 2017, for example, retired Quebec Superior Court Justice Jacques Viens, who is presiding over the inquiry, recommended people no longer be jailed in Val-d'Or if they fail to pay fines for things like loitering.

The recommendation was one of three calls to action the Viens Commission has made so far, and it was acted on almost immediately.

"The commission is making a difference," said Bosum, adding it has given a voice to people "who have never had one before."

Room for improvement

Earlier in the day, Bosum highlighted several areas where the Cree Nation Government would like to see more profound changes — including how services to First Nations people are funded in Quebec.

Bosum called out the provincial government for its action plan on how to improve the lives of Indigenous people in Quebec, which was released in June 2017.

He said the document is too focused on "constitutional issues" and erroneously insists Quebec's responsibility to provide services such as health, education, employment and housing is limited to people living off reserve.

"We must take issue with this point of view," Bosum said. "We must break down silos in order to offer effective services to Indigenous peoples, not retreat behind constitutional walls."

Policing, housing issues remain, says chief

The Cree grand chief also outlined pressing issues around policing.

He said he would like Quebec to offer more comprehensive training to non-Indigenous officers who work in an Indigenous context, by teaching them about First Nations history, culture, spirituality and residential schools.

Quebec should also develop a new police complaint system with input from Indigenous groups, he suggested. Bosum said meetings between public security and Indigenous groups have already happened in Val-d'Or.

Still, there are other obstacles Indigenous people in Quebec face, Bosum said.

"Housing is the hidden iceberg lurking below many of the issues before this commission," said Bosum, urging the province to address "third world" conditions in many Indigenous communities.

Overcrowded housing, said Bosum, drives many Indigenous people to "escape" south to urban centres, where they fall prey to misfortune, violence, abuse and homelessness.

Until housing is addressed in a concrete way, it will be difficult to tackle other issues Indigenous people are facing, said Bosum.

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