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Apologies, concerns follow inquiry

Regional chief of the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador (AFNQL) Ghislain Picard believes there is still much work ahead. (Natalia Fedosieieva The Eastern Door)

Premier François Legault publicly apologized to the Indigenous people of Quebec this Wednesday, after The Public Inquiry Commission on relations between Indigenous Peoples and certain public services in Québec (Viens commission) report was released Monday.

“I offer Quebec’s First Nations and Inuit members the most sincere apology from all of Quebec,” Legault said. “The state of Quebec has failed in its duty to you, and it asks you today for forgiveness,” he said, in French.

After a three-year investigation, in his report, the commission’s president Jacques Viens highlighted concrete findings about discriminatory practices towards Indigenous people in Quebec’s public services.

Quebec’s inquiry started after some Indigenous women publicly accused provincial police officers in Val d’Or of sexual assault in 2015.

Viens said after 38 weeks of hearings in Val d’Or, Montreal, Quebec, Mani-Utenam, Mistissini, Kuujjuaq and Kuujjuarrapik, and gathering over 1,000 stories and 1,300 documents for evidence, “it seems impossible to deny the systemic discrimination experienced by First Nations and Inuit people,” according to the Viens commission’s website.

The Viens report provides 142 calls to action, including the apology for systemic discrimination towards Indigenous people, granting Indigenous police forces the same status as other police organizations in Quebec, creation of justice systems and administration with Indigenous nations, developing an assessment tool specific to Indigenous offenders, increasing access to health and social services in Indigenous settings and implementing a special youth protection program.

Indigenous leaders and activists expressed their appreciation for the commission, however they had some concerns in regards to the Viens report.

Regional chief of the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador (AFNQL) Ghislain Picard thinks one of the biggest disappointments about the Viens report is “not much was said in terms of policing services, and it is very unfair towards Indigenous women who were the ones who denounced police abuse.”

In his opinion, relations between the First Nations and Quebec are the direct responsibility of the leader of the province.

“The premier may attempt to make amends for the past,” he said, “But I especially wish that he would do so when the government of Quebec stood before the court and continued to affirm that Quebec has never recognized the right to self-determination of First Nations, and that it refuses to recognize that First Nations police services are essential services.”

Specifically, Picard mentioned the position of Quebec’s solicitor general.

“They are saying the Indigenous policing is not an essential service, and they are saying, as well, Indigenous nations don’t have self-government. It is against the recommendations. This is part of the arguments being put forward by the solicitor general,” he said.

“It is like the government speaking by both sides of the mouth,” he said, “On one hand they express their apology and on the other side they are challenging us before the court.”

“To me, apology is one thing,” Picard said, “But sometimes it represents an easy way out of taking actions, so we have to ensure the follow-up of how Quebec is intending and proceeding.”

He thinks a lot of work has been put in the commission’s findings and its recommendation, but a very specific process will lead to the concrete changes in government services.

“It can be done one-sided only or it can be united, where we have to be involved,” he said, “We have to be a part of the design of whatever the next steps are.”

Quebec Native Women (QNW) said certain recommendations were not retained and the safety of Indigenous women was not considered a priority by the Viens commission.

“The investigation did not lead to strong calls for action on the police and the justice system in the services for Indigenous women,” the QNW statement reads.

Mary Hannaburg, QNW vice president, said the investigation started with the courage of women in Val d’Or disclosing violence of the police and, at the end, Indigenous women forgotten by the Quebec inquiry commission.

“They (Indigenous women) took a personal risk of identifying themselves,” she said, “They paid a high price for the public speaking, they were targeted by the police force, but the inquiry started to lose its focus and it is kind of putting those women aside.

“The report does not include the whole issue of the violence against women in that particular situation with the police,” she said. “And their safety is in question now.”

Hannaburg thinks building the trust is important, but the institutions that oppressed Indigenous women in the past are the same institutions that exist today.

“We cannot work with the same oppressive racist systemic frameworks with people that have attitudes that they are more superior because they are in the position of power,” she said.

She believes Quebec doesn’t have a proper police service and a proper respect and dignity towards Indigenous people.

“We come from a historical colonialist genocide approach, we need to move from that now,” she said, “They (officials) say they want reconciliation, so they need to start treating us with respect as we matter.”

In her opinion, the implementation of the report’s recommendations must be made with Indigenous women’s organizations.

“We need to be there telling them what is not working in those calls to action,” Hannaburg said. “I could see we have a big gap in the report, and we need to have the citizen’s protection to consult with QNW, because we listen to our women and the families and we want to be consulted.

“If we want effective changes, we need to have a start, putting a mechanism in place there, working for our women and families,” she said.

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