The storm around allegations of sexual assault by Quebec police officers intensified on Tuesday, with the head of the provincial force declaring there was no "crisis," as a petition demanded a high-ranking minister apologize for a "lack of control in her emotion and her words" on the matter.
Quebec public security minister Lise Thériault broke down in tears last week when a reporter asked how she felt about revelations made by Radio-Canada investigative show Enquête that police officers in the town of Val-d'Or allegedly targeted visibly intoxicated Aboriginal women.
Some of the women say police officers drove them out of town, left them to walk back in the cold, physically assaulted them, and forced them to perform sex acts.
Since then, an internal investigation into the allegations was transferred to the Montreal police, and eight officers in Val-d'Or have been suspended.
An emotional Thériault said Thursday she was "shocked," that it was "time to do something," and that some officers within the force could be "rotten."
An online petition, reportedly started by a cop, demands she apologize for taking sides before all the facts are known. It has garnered 1,600 signatures so far.
Today, Martin Prud'homme, the director of the provincial force Sûreté du Québec, told reporters that "there is no crisis" in Val-d'Or, and noted that none of the officers have been suspended because of sexual assault allegations.
On Monday, the president of the Quebec provincial police union Pierre Veilleux came to the defense of the eight officers, echoing the sentiment of the petition, which said Thériault "helped to increase the anger of the population towards the police in Quebec."
After arriving in the town to meet with members of the association, Veilleux wanted to "set the record straight" in a statement, urging "the various stakeholders in the public to cease to feed the mob against Sûreté du Québec."
"To be clear, at this stage, these are just allegations," said Veilleux. "The presumption of innocence is a fundamental principle in a society based on the rule of law. We must not lose sight of that."
He said the crisis sheds light on social problems in Aboriginal communities "who live in great difficulty across the country," and that "it would be unfortunate if these officers become scapegoats for problems that overshadow their responsibilities."
"Let's instead focus on finding sustainable solutions for vulnerable people," Veilleux said.
Prud'Homme has announced two pilot projects that would start in Val-d'Or — police vehicular cameras would be implemented by the end of the year, and a team of officers accompanied by social workers to intervene in social issues like homelessness, drug abuse, and alcoholism would also be formed.
The majority of officers stationed in Val-d'Or didn't come into work over the weekend, confirmed Guy Lapointe, head of media relations at Sûreté du Québec.
"It's a very small community, so the repercussions of the report and everything that's been said in the media, there's been what I'd qualify as collateral damage in the sense that families, spouses, children — some of them — have received insults, have been pointed by other people here in the community, so it's been a difficult time for them, so we're making sure we're putting everything in place to support them," said Lapointe.
"There are 56 officers here at the station, so notwithstanding the fact that 8 officers are currently suspended, these officers still have to come in and do their job every day," he said.
Follow Tamara Khandaker on Twitter: @anima_tk