Indigenous leaders welcomed the long-awaited Viens Commission report but expressed concerns about accountability when it was released in Val-d’Or September 30, where several women’s stories of provincial police abuse in 2015 led to the creation of the Public Inquiry Commission on relations between Indigenous Peoples and certain public services in Quebec.
Retired Superior Court Justice Jacques Viens found it “impossible to deny” that Indigenous people in Quebec faced “systemic discrimination” accessing public services. The scathing 520-page report comprehensively establishes the context of inequality and distrust and makes 142 calls for action, including expanding access to services, removing language barriers and improving living conditions.
Quebec Premier François Legault answered the first of these calls by formally apologizing at the National Assembly before Indigenous leaders October 2. He said he would study the report’s recommendations and work with Indigenous groups to improve the situation.
But reports alone don’t change the situation on the streets.
“There have been a lot of reports,” said Nakuset, the director of Montreal’s Native Women’s Shelter. “Who at the end of the day is going to apply them? It looks very nice on paper, but nobody puts anything forward or is forced to. If you have to tell someone to apologize, it’s not genuine.”
Nakuset often sees the most vulnerable Indigenous people denied essential services, even when specific agreements and liaison officers exist. She shared the story of Mina Aculiak as an example. Aculiak is an Inuk woman who had come to Montreal for medical services after being struck by a police vehicle in her community. City police apprehended Aculiak while intoxicated after her surgery, then released her six hours later. Speaking no French or English and with a catheter still in her arm, she was lost in the city for nearly a week.
“We had to find her,” Nakuset told the Nation. “What does this woman learn about the police? In your community, if you don’t agree with them, they’ll run you over. And if you come to Montreal, they’ll drop you in the middle of nowhere and not help. No one is ever accountable – this woman is traumatized for sure.”
Nonetheless, the Cree Nation Government welcomed the Viens Commission report as “a road map” to reconciliation between Indigenous peoples and the Quebec government.
Grand Chief Abel Bosum said in a statement that the Cree Nation intends to work with Quebec to ensure the report’s calls for action are promptly implemented. The CNG, he added, is already addressing the housing crisis, which the Commission identified as a fundamental problem underlying various social, health and economic issues.
Bosum also saluted the courage of the Indigenous women who came forward in Val-d’Or with the original allegations of sexual and physical violence. While the media fury resulting from these accusations spurred the Commission’s creation, then-Premier Philippe Couillard expanded its mandate from police abuse to include the justice and correctional system, health and social services and youth protection services.
“It was a very important moment for us,” said Val-d’Or Friendship Centre Executive Director Edith Cloutier, who played a key role in bringing the allegations to light. “I’ve been in contact with the women who started all this. We have a general sense of satisfaction.”
Cloutier was pleased that the report recognizes that Indigenous societies with greater autonomy develop more effective support systems. By addressing common misconceptions, she feels there is potential for the province to accept Indigenous visions of family, government, healing methods and legal traditions.
“It’s a report that must be read by non-Indigenous citizens of Quebec,” Cloutier told the Nation. “This report is not an end. It invites us to dust off Quebec’s colonial history and carries that mandate to educate the population about the realities of Indigenous people.”
This education is particularly important in terms of urban Indigenous realities, which Cloutier feels have too often been relegated to the shadows. Quebec’s 12 Native friendship centres are the most significant off-reserve providers of culturally appropriate services, regularly encountering a public system that has failed Indigenous peoples. Although the Viens report provides hope for improving these relationships, suggestions to enhance police accountability are conspicuously absent.
“There is an important distinction between apologies for prejudice caused by public services and apologies from police authorities for aggression and abuse towards Indigenous people,” explained Cloutier. “For us, that is still an unanswered request that the women themselves had expected.”
While the RCMP and other police forces have previously made official apologies, Cloutier and other Indigenous leaders have condemned the Sûreté du Québec’s “total denial” of systemic racism within its ranks. The advocacy group Quebec Native Women expressed concern the inquiry’s broad mandate had shifted the focus away from the initial allegations against the provincial police; indeed, the association representing SQ officers has called the report a collection of “hearsay evidence.”
“We knew we wouldn’t see what we wanted to see,” said Ghislain Picard, Chief of the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador. “The establishment of the Viens Commission goes to Indigenous women who dared to speak out against the abuses they suffered as victims, and the report devotes them only a few lines. The apologies recommended by Judge Viens are rightfully theirs.”
The report said Indigenous peoples are too often treated like “second-class citizens” but Picard said it is “too weak” on ensuring that proper action is taken.
Among the thousand-plus testimonies gathered for the Viens report are many similarly appalling stories that highlight the extensive work ahead to restore trust in Quebec’s social-service systems. Four years after stepping forward, the Indigenous women of Val-d’Or are still haunted by the fear of police.
Cloutier has witnessed their “rollercoaster of emotion” since the initial crisis and conveyed their disappointment that the Commission didn’t live up to expectations. Throughout the process, these women have confronted their various struggles with homelessness, prostitution and substance abuse to pursue their own healing paths.
“Some are off the streets, some got their children back who were in custody,” shared Cloutier. “Overall, I found that their position is to say, ‘I’m encouraged – I feel that people believe me.’ But at the same time, they don’t feel any safer than in 2015.”