The Quebec government announced December 4 it will spend $18.6 million over five years to improve policing in Indigenous communities. The new measures are a long-awaited response to recommendations made by the Viens Commission and the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Inquiry.
Recruitment and retention of Indigenous police officers are a primary focus. One of the first measures will be to fund basic police training for up to 24 Indigenous people annually at Quebec’s Nicolet police academy, about $30,000 per student. Currently only 3% of Nicolet’s graduates are Indigenous – between 18 and 23 every year.
“We really want to make a big effort to get our young men and women interested in this profession,” said Public Security Minister Geneviève Guilbault. “We must foster safe living environments that satisfy specific and changing needs in Indigenous communities and this is what we are doing.”
Guilbault said the plan includes specialized training within Indigenous communities and in their own languages. The training would help local forces investigate family violence and sexual assault cases without support from the Sûreté du Québec.
As many of Quebec’s 22 Indigenous police services are small, sending their limited workforce away for advanced training is difficult. Officers also frequently choose to leave smaller forces not only for better working conditions but because of the tightly connected nature of Indigenous communities.
“You may be called for a conjugal violence at a home where it’s your cousin who is the suspect or the victim,” Shawn Dulude, president of the Association of First Nations and Inuit Chiefs of Police of Quebec, said at the press conference. “You can’t say, ‘I’m going to give the call to somebody else,’ because there’s nobody else. Often you’re alone with your partner working that shift.”
Dulude is trying to counter this problem by facilitating rotations where officers could be exchanged with another First Nation force. While various solutions have been proposed to address the retention issue, it’s difficult for Indigenous police forces to compete without comparable pay.
“I’ve heard more than one Chief say it’s good we have our own police but there’s so much turnaround on staff,” said Ghislain Picard, the Quebec and Labrador regional chief for the Assembly of First Nations. “They train and work with us but because we can’t pay what they’d be paid with the SQ they move on to another police force.”
When an international movement erupted around defunding the police last summer, some pointed out that chronic underfunding of Indigenous police forces is ongoing evidence of systemic racism. Picard is hopeful that renegotiating funding agreements – Ottawa currently pays 52% and Quebec 48% – will make Indigenous policing a more attractive career choice.
“I was just part of a call yesterday with the feds and there’s certainly a clear commitment to move towards a law that would recognize First Nations policing as an essential service and at some point, address the issue of funding as well,” Picard told the Nation. “Ultimately our communities are wanting to have their own police and institutions, so Quebec should support that notion.”
As the MMIWG inquiry noted, this autonomy is particularly important when delays can make the difference in finding a missing person. The government announced that initiatives developed “by and for” Indigenous women and girls will respond to their specific challenges, including $1.2 million dedicated to preventing sexual exploitation of minors.
“Everyone’s collaboration is essential in ensuring Indigenous women and girls may live in safety,” stated Isabelle Charest, minister responsible for the status of women. “All forms of violence must cease. The Comité des femmes autochtones is advising and supporting the Quebec government in the implementation of these initiatives.”
To give sexual assault victims greater trust in the legal system, the province’s forensic science laboratory will integrate liaison officers to support Indigenous police forces. With this measure, it’s hoped victims will be better informed and supported at different stages of the judicial process.
In response to numerous inquiry findings of systemic discrimination, the province also appears to be addressing repeated calls for cultural sensitivity training. Correctional officers will be given cultural training to broaden their understanding of Indigenous realities while the ethics commission’s complaint procedure will be adapted at all stages to Indigenous peoples’ needs and experiences.
Finally, $4.1 million will fund an Indigenous police forces status report and provide support for the First Nations Chiefs of Police Association.
“There needs to be the space and time to speak broadly about the whole issue of justice,” asserted Picard. “Nobody will say anything against what was announced last week – it’s certainly a plus, but we have to go beyond this.”