Quebec Native Women scale back participation in inquiry into treatment of Indigenous people
Non-profit can't afford legal and travel fees to attend hearings in Val d'Or
Quebec Native Women says it can no longer afford to fully participate in Quebec's inquiry into the treatment of Indigenous people — something it says will leave the commission without a permanent Indigenous presence.
On Monday, the association's lawyer filed an application to withdraw legal representation before the Public Inquiry Commission on relations between Indigenous Peoples and certain public services in Quebec: listening, reconciliation and progress, meaning the group will no longer have legal counsel at the hearings.
"The words listening, reconciliation and progress were chosen and they indicate that a dialogue must be established," said Rainbow Miller, one of the lawyers representing Quebec Native Women.
"There should be a balance in the representation between government and native organizations. For us it is a matter of equity."
The president of Quebec Native Women, Viviane Michel, was a key figure in the creation of the inquiry back in December 2016, a year after CBC/Radio-Canada reported that several Indigenous women said they had been physically and sexually abused by provincial police officers stationed in Val-d'Or.
Quebec Native Women was the first group to request to participate. Michel was also the first witness called when the commission began its official hearings in June.
"We were the only Indigenous organization which has been there continuously," said Michel, adding that as a not-for-profit, there is no way for them to pay for legal representation and the costs of attending the hearings in Val d'Or.
"I'm frustrated because the Quebec government, their lawyers are there. The police association, when it concerns the police, their lawyer is present. It frustrates me to always have to negotiate, to always have to defend our expertise."
Minister says Quebec has been 'very generous'
The Quebec government has given the group $20,000 and is promising another $20,000 to help with legal fees, but says as a general rule it does not finance groups that participate in public inquiries.
"For this group we made an exception," said Geoffrey Kelley, minister responsible for Native Affairs, adding that the government also increased Quebec Native Women's core funding.
"So I think we've been very generous. And we are very sensitive, but with the money we've made available to them, they can follow closely the work of the Viens Commission."
Retired Superior Court Justice Jacques Viens, who is presiding over the provincial commission, said while he does not have any jurisdiction to interfere in issues around funding, he feels the participation of Quebec Native Women is "very important."
Michel says her group will continue to attend the hearings when it can, but says Quebec's lack of willingness to prioritize a permanent Indigenous presence at the hearings shows a profound lack of understanding of the word "reconciliation."
"It is important for the government to show good faith," said Michel. "We talk about reconciliation in this process. How can we be involved in reconciliation when we always have to defend our right to be financed?"
The inquiry is expected to be completed by Nov. 30, 2018.