Looking back on the Val-d’Or police crisis and the progress made

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This November marks three years since the Val-d’Or crisis erupted, after Radio-Canada’s investigative television program Enquête shined a bright light on the allegations of Indigenous women who said they’d been mistreated, harassed, profiled and taken on starlight tours outside of the city by local police officers.

The stories of these courageous women on television, online and in news reports were nothing short of devastating. It was infuriating to see the breakdown in the justice system, the chain of command in the Sûreté du Québec and other police institutions that protect their own at all costs. To hear that several officers at the Val-d’Or detachment had informed their superiors that specific individuals had made a habit of mistreating Indigenous people and were ignored or told to leave it alone was maddening. How could the people tasked with serving and protecting be so heartless?

I visited Val-d’Or as part of my work for the Nation a couple times over the course of 2015 and what struck me most was the local distrust of those who came forward. That their stories were either completely fabricated or exaggerated. That their allegations were seen by many as just drunken tales of nights long forgotten. Or even worse: that their stories and their experiences simply didn’t matter – that Indigenous lives didn’t matter.

On my cab rides and walks to and from the Air Creebec Centre, from the hotel to different restaurants, the gym and different bars downtown, there were numerous signs planted in the front lawns of residences publicly stating their support for the SQ and local law enforcement. I wondered if these people had even listened to the stories. If they had even bothered to consider the daily struggles faced by the women who braved public backlash in order to raise awareness and hopefully help prevent the suffering of other First Nations women in the area.

Were the people of Val-d’Or aware that these women experienced racism, discrimination, multiple forms of violence and profiling even before they endured the alleged abuse at the hands of certain SQ officers? Did they care?

I couldn’t comprehend it even as I reported on it for the Nation. The division. The separation. The denial. The indifference.

On the flip side, however, the responses from the Cree Nation Government, then Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come, Edith Cloutier and the Native Friendship Centre, and surrounding First Nations communities – even Val-d’Or Mayor Pierre Corbeil – were encouraging. Prominent Indigenous leaders and activists demanded action and took to the streets in the city. Officers were placed on administrative leave and the investigation handed over to the Montreal Police. Later, the Quebec government would launch the Jacques Viens commission in an attempt to get to the bottom of the allegations and assess the overall conduct of not only SQ officers in Val-d’Or, but public services in general.

The Quebec’s Director of Criminal and Penal Prosecutions eventually ruled that the allegations against eight officers would not stand up in court and the SQ’s ethics commissioner cleared seven of the policemen in question (though one investigation is still pending). Still, there has been an attempt to change the way that Quebec police officers deal with Indigenous women.

That said, it was disappointing to hear the former head of the SQ and interim Montreal police director, Martin Prud’homme, plead ignorance at the Viens commission when asked if he was aware of the problem in Val-d’Or prior to the allegations. He did note that the Val-d’Or detachment has changed its approach to a community-based policing model. Prud’homme hopes that, eventually, Indigenous officers would comprise 50% of the local police force.

For her part, Val-d’Or’s new chief inspector, Ginette Séguin, says she has met with leaders from 41 of the 55 First Nations communities in the surrounding area and regularly consults with band councils to incorporate best practices in her and her officers’ police work.

“My expectation from my police officers,” she said, “is for them to go toward people and ask them, ‘How can we move forward?’”

Finally, last month the SQ finally put an end to the wearing of the “144” bracelet – so-called for the number of the Val-d’Or detachment – by SQ officers throughout the province in solidarity with their suspended colleagues. As several First Nations leaders charged, the bracelet was an open sign of bias against the women who originally came public with their allegations.

Looking back on the Val-d’Or crisis is still frustrating and disheartening. It’s tough to find solace in a situation that is without resolution. It’s great to see certain changes in Quebec’s institutions, and I truly hope that sensitivity training and the awareness generated by Indigenous groups helps educate police officers and emergency workers on cultural differences, personal histories of violence and abuse, and past traumas.

Though the women who came forward in Val-d’Or haven’t received justice, they started a crucial conversation and a very public debate that seems to have brought about some positive change in Quebec’s police institutions.







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