Quebec’s Public Inquiry hears from Cree leadership

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Quebec’s Public Inquiry Commission on relations between Indigenous peoples and certain public services is almost through its first phase of hearings. Over the month of June, the inquiry heard from Indigenous nations, leaders and organizations in order to better situate itself for phase two of the process – personal testimonies.

The inquiry’s mission is to listen, reconcile and progress. It will hear testimony related to correctional, health, social and youth services and render its final report by November 30, 2018.

Melissa Saganash, the CNG’s Director of Cree Quebec Relations, has worked alongside Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come on the file and says there is willingness on the part of the commission to listen.

“We’ve seen that the listening is there,” Saganash told the Nation. “The inquiry wants to hear what’s been happening and understand who the Indigenous people of Quebec are. It’s a good start.”

But despite the will to listen, the question remains: can a governing body truly be impartial when examining itself?

In Saganash’s view, the second phase – when individuals have the chance to testify – will be crucial for organizations and governments. “We have to watch and ensure the commission is listening and hearing these stories and translating them into appropriate recommendations,” she said. “We have to be able to create real change, and for that to happen everyone needs to pitch in.”

Mel  Melissa B. Saganash at the officecoon come big

To its credit, the inquiry endeavours to speak to serious, long-standing issues. Addressing the last 15 years of systemic discrimination and violence faced by Indigenous people is no small task.

For the Cree, however, three issues will take centre stage: housing, policing and the tendency of governments, both federal and provincial, to hide behind jurisdiction.

“The critical shortage of housing in the communities underlies all the other problems. As long as Indigenous people are forced to live 10, 15 and 20 persons in a single house, health and social issues will continue to cause them to leave for cities. This has to change,” Coon Come told the inquiry in Val-d’Or June 14.

“Another key issue is the need to change attitudes and behaviours among some members of the police forces and other public services, to do away with discrimination toward Indigenous people. Changing attitudes is always difficult, and it takes time. But we have to start now.

Coon Come called on the federal and provincial governments to “stop hiding behind jurisdictional issues to ‘pass the buck’ to each other. Instead, they must work together with Indigenous authorities to take real action to solve the problems giving rise to systemic discrimination against Indigenous people.”

What’s become apparent in the early stages of the inquiry is that for things to change, there needs to be a culture shift, said Saganash. She believes that begins with understanding.

“There needs to be at the very least an acknowledgement of our culture,” she implored. “We’re not just relegated to our communities; we’re going to be accessing services. There’s certainly a lack of understanding of our cultures. The realities of the Sixties Scoop and residential schools – there’s been a lasting colonial impact on our people. We’re resilient, but there needs to be an acknowledgment, understanding and respect of our cultures.”

In a concrete form, Saganash added, this could take the form of better training for non-Indigenous police officers about the realities and challenges faced by people coming from Indigenous communities to urban centres.

The provincial commission now shifts to individuals who signed up to share their own perspectives on Quebec’s relationship with Indigenous peoples. The CNG has requested that resources be provided for legal services and travel and that the opportunity be afforded to participants from Eeyou Istchee to address the inquiry’s commissioners in Cree.

For Coon Come, the commission is a fitting conclusion to his term. “I’ve spent my whole life fighting for the rights and dignity of Indigenous people,” he told The Nation. “That’s why I fought so hard to help create this Commission of Inquiry. And so it was fitting that my last public appearance as Grand Chief was before the Commission of Inquiry – it can do much to heal the injuries of the past and restore to Indigenous people their rights and dignity.”

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