Val-d’Or crisis flames anew as prosecutors decline to bring charges against SQ

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A dozen Indigenous women behind the allegations of police abuse in Val-d’Or were attending a retreat at a nearby cultural centre on November 15 to prepare for an announcement on whether charges would be brought against their abusers. They were participating in healing ceremonies and receiving psychological support to prepare for individual meetings with prosecutors later in the week.

Then the facilitator of the event, Val-d’Or Native Friendship Centre Director Édith Cloutier, received a text from a journalist with the French-language TVA network. There would be no charges, it read. And this, from a source within the Surêté du Québec.

“It was difficult, a really bitter disappointment,” Cloutier recounted during an interview at her Val-d’Or office November 18, the morning before prosecutors formally announced that none of the 35 complaints coming from Val-d’Or – where six SQ officers were suspended with pay during a year-long investigation – would bring criminal charges (though they did announce that two cases dating from the 1980s and 1990s in Schefferville have led to charges of sexual assault against two former police officers there).

Cloutier had just returned from a briefing given by Quebec crown prosecutors to explain the decision to community leaders – among them, the Friendship Centre, the Cree Nation Government, Quebec Native Women and the Val-d’Or city council. She says tension is once again mounting in Val-cloutier-1d’Or, where many people want the attention to go away and say they support the police.

But for the women who chose to speak out, Cloutier says, the week was a bitter disappointment.

“It was very difficult to mobilize these women because of all the difficult challenges – alcoholism, homelessness, an accumulation of ruptures in their lives, including breaks with both family and community,” she related. “They had to struggle to come forward to testify. They had been building up hope in that process over the past year. They accepted to go through it in good faith even though they knew it was a process in which the police were investigating the police. And, then finally, only to be let down.”

The previous day, on November 17, a dozen of the women who made allegations gave a press conference at the Friendship Centre. In a joint declaration, they explained how, 18 months ago, they decided to “forget about fear, to break the silence” by coming forward in a documentary by Radio-Canada journalist Josée Dupuis for the program Enquête.

“We had been, for many years, victims of intimidation, abuse of power, and sexual and physical abuse by SQ officers in Val-d’Or. We made these denunciations for our friend Sindy and the Ruperthouse family with the hope that she would be found, but also to put an end to police violence against Aboriginal women,” read the declaration.

“Today, we must admit that this is not the case. And this raises deep and conflicting feelings in us: rage, discouragement, fear of being judged and treated as liars. We feel betrayed, humiliated and our heart is broken in pieces.  It is as if in this country’s justice system, we were not important, we were left behind and we have not been heard. And above all, that fear will continue to haunt us: fear of the return of the suspended police officers, fear of reprisals, fear for our own security.”

Prosecutors on the stand

In a rare step, the four crown prosecutors with the responsibility to examine the allegations gave a press conference November 18 to explain the decision to forego criminal charges against the six suspended officers at the local SQ detachment. Held in courtroom 160 of the Val-d’Or Palais de Justice, drums could be heard from a demonstration outside the building to support the victims.

They gave a very careful, legalistic portrait of the decisions, repeatedly insisting on the need to be able to present a case that could bring a guilty verdict beyond any reasonable doubt. None of the Val-d’Or complaints met this standard, they explained.

None of the cases offered physical evidence; the reliability of presumed victims was often in doubt; identification of the perpetrators sometimes couldn’t be made with certainty. In one case, the officer subject to a complaint had since died.

“We are conscious of the disappointment in this case, and we understand their disappointment,” commented prosecutor Alexandre Dalmau. “But the degree of proof required to bring charges was too high.”


Prosecutor Sylvain Petitclerc said they need a more demanding level of proof in sexual assault cases – a level above a judgment that an offense “probably” occurred. “We must not accede to media or public pressure,” Petitclerc added. “But this does not mean that an event described in these complaints did not occur.”

Prosecutor Nadine Haviernick noted there are other avenues for the complainants, however. The Montreal police investigators suggested victims could take their cases to a police ethics board. “But we as criminal prosecutors can only examine possible criminal charges.”

And that, the four prosecutors emphasized, limited their possible choices. As Dalmau concluded, “That doesn’t mean that an event didn’t take place. But we are not a commission that looks to produce the absolute truth.”

A choice for the government

The protestors outside the courthouse wouldn’t settle for anything less than a full airing of the truth. As the president of Femmes Autochtones du Québec, Viviane Michel, told the crowd, “We will not abandon our women. We will continue the struggle. We will build our movement. And for the truth, we need an independent and transparent inquiry.”

Earlier in the week, Cree Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come told the Nation that the fact that the investigations have not led to any charges makes it more important than ever “to expose and to eradicate a pattern of abuse and systemic racism uncovered by the investigations, not only in Val-d’Or, but across Quebec, as more cases come to light.

“It is important that we continue to provide support to the Indigenous women who bravely spoke out against abuse and sy
stemic racism within police forces,” Coon Come added. “At this moment, I imagine that they feel that the justice system has let them down. We will therefore continue to call upon the Quebec government to launch an independent provincial judicial inquiry into the examination of police misconduct towards Indigenous women.

It’s a statement that was echoed by the chief of the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador, Ghislain Picard, outside the courthouse. “There are many questions that don’t have answers. The only way we are going to get answers is with a judicial inquiry.”


Systemic racism

The independent observer appointed to oversee the process, Fannie Lafontaine, issued a report the same week praising the “fair and impartial” investigation of the Montreal police officers sent to look into the widespread allegations of sexual abuse, physical assault and the use of “starlight tours” to punish marginalized Native women and a handful of men in Val-d’Or.

But Lafontaine identified a need to help victims negotiate their way through the justice system, and especially how to clarify future complaints. She recommended an information campaign to help raise awareness in this regard. She also called for better police training and adequate Native representation in police forces.

It’s her last recommendation that is causing trouble for the Quebec government, however. Lafontaine identified “a need to shed light on
the underlying causes of the present allegations of sexual abuse and abuse of power against police officers and the potential existence of discriminatory behaviour towards Aboriginal peoples, particularly Indigenous women, which suggests the existence of systemic racism among security forces against Aboriginal people.”

Quebec politicians raced to drop the ball on how to shed light on the “systemic racism” Lafontaine points to.

According to a Radio-Canada report seeking a response to Lafontaine’s assertion, Aboriginal Affairs Minister Geoff Kelley refused to acknowledge the existence of systemic racism in Quebec police forces. He also said the national inquiry into missing and murdered women would be sufficient to help Native communities regain confidence in police forces.

Nor did spokespersons for the Parti Québecois and the Coalition Avenir Québec recognize a problem with racism toward Native people in the province. In the National Assembly, only the small left-wing party Québec Solidaire supported the idea of a provincial inquiry.


Tension building

Meanwhile, in Val-d’Or, the unease between communities is palpable. Signs are starting to appear around town supporting the SQ. Arguments on the street over the issue can be heard. And the SQ detachment itself is fanning the flames.

Local officers have taken to wearing special wristbands to symbolize their solidarity against their accusers. As Édith Cloutier notes, officers have even showed up at Willie’s Place, a drop-in centre for homeless Native people, wearing the bands along with their police uniforms.

“It’s a political statement that demonstrates how the system didn’t get it,” Cloutier said. “Why don’t their superiors better manage their staff and ethics? The police now want to be seen as the victims. They are trying to get public opinion on their side, saying they have been unfairly suspended for a year. And now that no charges are coming forward, that everything was a lie. We understand that the general public will see this as the police won and we lost.”

Meanwhile, she says, there have been more incidents. “There are new reports of starlight tours. Others state they are victims of police abuse, physical abuse. But now they are going to be more reluctant than ever to come forward.”

The only option for Quebec is a focused, independent inquiry, Cloutier insists. “But for this we need political mobilization. We need it from First Nations leadership, yes, but we also need Québécois people to join us in solidarity. We all need to ask ourselves: what kind of society do we want to live in? A society of inequality?”


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