The Viens Commission investigates Quebec’s public services and their relationship to the Indigenous population

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The Viens Commission finally visited the place where a crisis in confidence in Quebec’s provincial police began three years ago, as the public inquiry into the mistreatment of Indigenous people in Quebec heard testimony at the Val-d’Or music conservatory October 15-26.

The six Quebec public services covered by the public inquiry include policing, justice, corrections, youth protection, and health and social services.

The last day of the Val-d’Or hearings featured testimony from Nathalie Boisvert, General Manager of the Centre régional de santé et de services sociaux de la Baie-James, and Martin Prud’homme, Director General of the Sûreté du Québec (SQ).

During the morning session prosecutors questioned Boisvert about the lack of services in English for Cree patients visiting hospitals in the south and criticised their lack of full-time interpreters.

The afternoon session went far past the time scheduled as prosecutors and representatives peppered the SQ’s Prud’homme with questions. Some of the topics being reviewed were SQ officers’ wearing of the “144” bracelets, use of force practices, the lack of follow-up on complaints brought against SQ officers. Among the complaints are alleged cases of “starlight tours” – where an officer drives an Aboriginal person far out of town and leaves them to find their own way back.

Prud’homme was visibly uncomfortable during the hearings and offered few answers to the prosecution’s questions. His response to many was that he was unaware of the events because he was not the director general at the time.

At one point, prosecutor Paul Crepeau became frustrated with Prud’homme’s elusive answers and exclaimed, “So as I understand it, you don’t know anything before 2015?”

The hearings were presided over by retired Quebec judge Jacques Viens. As commissioner, Viens does not have the power to conduct criminal investigations, to re-open past cases or to influence outcomes or decisions from criminal or civil cases.

“It’s not a legal procedure because there is no punishment at the end,” said Suzanne Arpin, chief prosecutor for the commission. “There’s no judgment. There will only be some recommendations to the government and to the First Nations.”

Viens will file his report and recommendations in September 2019.

Between May 2017 and August 2018, 255 interviews and informal visits were conducted by the commission in Aboriginal communities and organizations in Quebec. During that period the commission met with all the Indigenous nations in the province.

The three liaison agents gathering testimonies in the Cree nation were Stella Bearskin, Terrence Duff and Manon Richmond.

The committee was in Mistissini for eight days of hearings last June 11-20, when they heard testimonies from 32 witnesses.

Testimony was taken from several Cree offices and organizations, including the Grand Council of the Crees (Eeyou Istchee)/Cree Nation Government, Cree Women of Eeyou Istchee Association, Cree Patient Services, MP Romeo Saganash and Grand Chief Abel Bosum.

Although the commission’s investigation units are no longer opening new files, they said there are still many resources available to help individuals share their stories.

At the end of the hearing Viens said the commission will return to Val-d’Or for the last of the public hearings in December 2018. The agenda for that meeting will be available in November.

In closing, Viens stressed how important it is for Quebec institutions to re-establish a climate of confidence with Indigenous peoples. For that to succeed, he added, Quebec institutions need to work alongside Indigenous entities. He called the process an “uphill battle” and emphasized his hopes that commissions such as this would not be necessary in the future.

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