Justice for Aboriginal women in Quebec?

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Last fall, the shocking allegations by Aboriginal women in Val-d’Or of physical and sexual misconduct perpetrated against them by local Sûreté du Québec officers brought a human drama into the light – violence against Indigenous women committed by those who are sworn to protect and ensure the safety of all citizens of Quebec.

These troubling revelations triggered a political crisis in Quebec, creating a wave of shock amongst the population that monopolized media attention both at the national and international levels. Days following the broadcast of Radio-Canada’s Enquête episode in October 2015, several chiefs (under the umbrella of the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador), held an emergency meeting at the Val-d’Or Native Friendship Centre to call upon the Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard to take immediate actions to guarantee the safety and protection of Aboriginal women. Our centre became “ground zero” for Aboriginal response to the crisis.

The Cree Nation increased the pressure by decreeing an economic embargo on Val-d’Or, provoking a bombshell within the city’s business community best illustrated by a bewildered and overwhelmed businessman showing up at the Friendship Centre, searching desperately for answers to: “Why should I be paying for someone else’s mistakes?”

The spontaneous answer I gave him was: “You don’t get it, do you? This is not about you or your business! This is about caring for our women, it’s about dignity, respect and justice.” It took drastic measures and emergency meetings at high levels for the Val-d’Or establishment and the Quebec government to grasp the suffering and the anger that was manifest within First Nations communities.

That was a year ago. Where are we today? Investigations by Montreal Police were conducted and judicial proceedings should follow. The City of Val-d’Or and the Chamber of Commerce adopted action plans to fight against racism, prejudices and discrimination. On August 3, the Canadian government launched the long-awaited Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women and Girls Commission.

How did Quebec respond to this announcement? By refuting the claim of Quebec’s First Nations for an independent provincial public inquiry. As always, Quebec is shovelling the “Indian problem” off to the federal government. Quebec Aboriginal Affairs Minister Geoffrey Kelley and Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée argued this decision was taken for the well-being of the victims of SQ police abuse, to spare them from having to testify twice.

Two problems arise from this position. First, it is not up to government ministers to decide whether or not the women should tell their stories and to whom they can reveal details of the violence perpetrated by SQ police officers. Second, should there be a public inquiry on the relationship between police authority and Indigenous women in Quebec. This would mean that not only the women, but also SQ authorities and Quebec government ministers could be summoned to testify.

Having been notified of the situation in Val-d’Or in May 2015, the Quebec government would then be publicly confronted with its own inaction to end police abuse and its failure to protect Aboriginal women in Val-d’Or. Then, the delicate issue of systemic racism against First Nation citizens in Quebec could be addressed.

The time has come for Quebec to take a hard look at how First Nations and Inuit people are treated. It’s time to tackle the roots of racism and discrimination that maintains Aboriginal peoples of this province as second-class citizens. If we citizens aspire for social justice for all and an authentic reconciliation, it is evident that an independent public inquiry in Quebec has become unavoidable.

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