A month after the Viens Commission documented the “systemic discrimination” faced by Quebec’s Indigenous people in accessing public services, Cree leaders are hopeful that many of the report’s calls for action will be implemented.
The optimism follows an October 17 meeting between the provincial government and representatives of Indigenous communities to discuss the report. While the meeting was generally described as constructive and encouraging, many were disappointed by Premier François Legault’s absence.
“After hearing several apologies from Premier Legault about his failure to attend, the only thing we can do at this point is to focus our attention on the concrete plans and the commitments by Quebec going forward,” Grand Chief Abel Bosum told the Nation. “It will be up to us, the Indigenous leadership working together, to make sure that the implementation matches the words.”
Bosum emphasized that this is an important opportunity to keep Quebec’s “feet to the fire” to implement meaningful change for the Indigenous people who experience the systemic racism described in the report.
“We made it clear that there is still so much that needs to be done to give real meaning to the entire exercise, and to give substantive proof to our Indigenous women, among other sectors of our community, that their concerns are being taken seriously,” said Bosum.
Among the numerous recommendations tabled by the Cree Nation Government (CNG) are improving Indigenous police funding and establishing mixed intervention patrols of police with community workers. They also propose developing initiatives for suicide and sexual assault prevention, women’s shelter and homeless shelter funding, and developing professional training and public awareness campaigns about Indigenous cultures.
While the Viens Commission was launched following allegations brought forward by Indigenous women of physical and sexual abuse at the hands of Sûreté du Québec police officers in Val-d’Or, many felt that calls for police accountability were conspicuously lacking in the final report.
“Personally, I agree with this criticism and we have brought this failure to the attention of Quebec,” said Bosum. “If Quebec is committed to meaningfully address the systemic racism in the province in all its manifestations, then obviously the SQ cannot avoid scrutiny about the training and operations of the force, and the obvious imperative to change. We are prepared to work closely with Quebec and the SQ to bring about change that is effective and respectful.”
The Viens Commission did echo Cree submissions that the housing crisis is at the centre of many Indigenous issues. The CNG has repeatedly stated that Quebec must take families’ actual needs into account when delivering the necessary financing to build housing in Indigenous communities. They have also demanded sustainable funding for urban services to homeless Indigenous people, including the creation of a shelter specifically for homeless Inuit in Montreal.
“It would be fair to say that the housing crisis is both a source as well as a consequence of many systemic problems for our Indigenous people,” Bosum said. “It is an absolutely critical factor that needs to be addressed in a very comprehensive way.”
Ghislain Picard, Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador (AFNQL), was pleased that government representatives, including Indigenous Affairs Minister Sylvie D’Amours, were open to meeting again before year’s end. He stated that “major structural changes” are necessary to set the course for “a true political relationship.”
The AFNQL welcomed British Columbia’s recent action to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and called on Premier Legault to fulfill his election campaign promise by following suit. A motion submitted by Québec solidaire proposing this step was unanimously supported by the National Assembly on October 3.
“The AFNQL believes that it is now time for Quebec to be at the forefront of the evolution of Indigenous law at the international level and replace this resolution with an implementation of the Declaration,” stated Picard. “This is the fundamental and legitimate goal that we are pursuing.”
Bosum pointed out the similarities in recommendations made by both the Viens Commission and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The TRC report identified implementation of the UNDRIP as the essential first step towards reconciliation.
“To effectively address systemic racism across the board, we need to make changes in every institution and in every aspect of the life of our communities, and the full range of experiences of our people in urban centres,” Bosum concluded. “This is the task before us. The stakes are just too high, and the opportunity provided by the follow-up to the Viens Commission are too great not to give it our best effort. We intend to do just that.”