Canada·Analysis

Not just aboriginal women should be scared of Quebec's police

Quebec's provincial police force has a long history of being an authority unto itself, Neil Macdonald writes. And it's not just vulnerable aboriginal women who should feel threatened by it.

Sûreté du Quebec has a long history of being an authority unto itself, which politicians know well

A woman holds up a sign in support of aboriginal women at a march on Saturday in Val-d'Or, QC. (Sandra Ataman/Radio-Canada)

Read this week's statement by the president of the Sûreté du Quebec police union if you're a lover of irony.

Pierre Veilleux was commenting on the uproar over allegations made by aboriginal women of police abuse in the northern Quebec city of Val d'Or.

"This crisis," he said, "brings to light a social issue in aboriginal communities living with great difficulties right across the country."

Let's focus, he added, "on finding sustainable solutions for vulnerable people."

Well, while it's certainly true that aboriginal women in Val d'Or qualify as vulnerable — it's actually hard to imagine anyone in Canada who is more vulnerable — let's be clear: the "social issue" under discussion in Val d'Or happens to be the behaviour of SQ officers.

According to several native women there who spoke to Radio-Canada, SQ officers have, for years, been assaulting them, or punishing them for being intoxicated by driving them out of town and stranding them in the cold.

Sometimes, these women say, the officers would throw in a demand for oral sex. Refusing, they said, carried a painful price.

As it turns out, authorities had been aware of such allegations for months.

But, as usual, the provincial police force was being allowed to quietly investigate itself, even though it has a nearly perfect record of declining to lay charges against its own members.

It took the reporting of Radio-Canada's premiere investigative program to pour on some disinfectant, and when that happened, things moved fast.

'No crisis' here, move along

The province's public security minister, actually weeping at a news conference, announced that eight SQ officers were now suspended. Suddenly, Montreal's municipal police force took over the investigation.

At that point, more aboriginal women started coming forward with similar stories.

Public Safety Minister Lise Thériault breaks down while answering media questions about claims of sexual assault by police officers on aboriginal women in Val D'Or, Que. 1:00

But the SQ, which came into being in the late 1930s as bullyboys and strikebreaking thugs in the service of then premier Maurice Duplessis, has a reputation for operating by its own rules.

In this case, Val d'Or's detachment decided to punish the town by simply not showing up for work all weekend.

The force's director general, evidently unbothered by that, declared there is "no crisis," ignoring the collective anger of aboriginal leaders.

And an online petition, reportedly begun by an SQ officer, demanded the public security minister apologize for showing "a lack of control in her emotion and her words."

A singular weapon

In English Canada, such overt contempt for civilian authority would be shocking.

Imagine an entire RCMP or Ontario Provincial Police detachment simply refusing to report for duty; or that sort of open sneering at the minister in charge.

But the SQ seems more in sync with New York City's force.

Remember the hundreds of officers who publicly turned their backs on the city's mayor after he sympathized with an unarmed black man who was choked to death by a crew of police after he gave them some lip and refused to quietly kneel?

A 1998 report by the provincially appointed Poitras commission concluded that the SQ simply cannot be trusted to investigate itself, and described a culture of willful blindness to members' misdeeds.

Retired judge Lawrence Poitras concluded that officers accused of abuse often retaliate with criminal charges against the accusers in order to cover their tracks.

What's more, as the force's many critics in Quebec have written, the SQ has a singular weapon against its political masters: it is the only force in Quebec authorized to investigate political corruption.

'Asses kicked'

Back in 1990, I was one of a cadre of reporters who learned what it meant to displease the SQ. That was during the Oka crisis.

The SQ, having triggered the crisis by attacking a group of unarmed Mohawk women who were defending an ancestral burial ground against developers, went wild with anger after the Mohawks fought back. (It was never determined who first used live ammunition, but an SQ corporal died during the assault.)

Officers threatened reporters, and the SQ's press office actually blamed the English language media for fanning the flames of the dispute in retribution for the failure of Brian Mulroney's Meech Lake Accord.

Bianca Moushoun is among the aboriginal women in Val d'Or, Que. who have filed formal complaints against Quebec police officers who she said gave her beer and traded sex acts for money and cocaine. (Radio-Canada)

After the Canadian army stepped in and, to its enormous credit, ended the crisis with no further bloodshed, the SQ began laying charges against dozens of Mohawks.

And it didn't stop there. Freelance photographer Shaney Komulainen, who snapped the defining image of the crisis — the young soldier standing nose to nose with a masked Mohawk Warrior — was recovering in hospital after a traffic accident when SQ officers showed up at her bed to charge her with various weapons offences, and with participating in a riot.

The charges were bogus. I was standing next to Komulainen when she shot the famous picture, and she was no more a rioter than I was.

But she'd been publicly sympathetic to the Mohawks, and that was evidently enough.

I happily testified when subpoenaed by the prosecution. It allowed me to set the record straight about Komulainen, and to describe how I'd been told that day by an SQ patrol to make sure I filmed "savages' asses getting kicked."

During a courtroom break, an SQ plainclothes officer scowled at me that if "I thought this was funny, I'd better be careful."

Then a military photographer, a soldier, told the court he'd followed Komulainen's every move all day, and that she'd done nothing but her job. She was acquitted.

To no one's surprise, the police who laid the charges were not themselves charged with malicious prosecution.

Since those days, I've tried to avoid the SQ. Their reputation is just too scary.

But ask yourself this: If I, a charter member of the privileged white males society, find them frightening, imagine what must go through the head of an intoxicated young aboriginal woman on a cold night, alone in a squad car?

Clarifications

  • An earlier version of this article said that the judge "threw out the charges" against photojournalist Shaney Komulainen. In fact, Komulainen was acquitted by a jury following a two and a half week trial.
    Nov 02, 2015 4:25 PM ET

About the Author

Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.