Members of Montreal's Aboriginal community hope a new agreement with the Montreal police will help reshape their relationship with the city's cops.
Signed on Thursday, the agreement commits the Montreal police to new practices to better serve the Aboriginal community in Montreal. Elements range from establishing an Aboriginal advisory committee to the Montreal police force (SPVM) to, in a first for municipal police in Canada, develop a protocol for addressing the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women.
"Our people have inherited a legacy of historical trauma and racism. Through imposed treaties and the Indian Act we lost our land, followed by 200 years of residential schools where our language and culture were practically eliminated. This collaboration will allow the SPVM to gain a better understanding of Aboriginal realities, through education and cultural awareness training," said Nakuset, the co-chair of the Montreal Urban Aboriginal Community Strategy Network (MUACSN), which developed the agreement. She signed the agreement on Thursday, along with SPVM Chief Marc Parent.
Montreal may not be as known as cities like Edmonton or Winnipeg for its urban Aboriginal population, or for problematic—and even deadly—interactions with police. But the relationship has still been a difficult one, with front line workers sharing stories of people being chased from parks and over-ticketed by police in a practice called "red-zoning." On top of that, the urban Aboriginal population in Montreal is both growing and facing rising rates of incarceration. According to Statistics Canada, Montreal's Aboriginal population was the fastest growing in the country between 2001 and 2006, increasing by 62 percent, slowing to a 25 percent increase between 2006 and 2011. Aboriginal adults are also over-represented in Quebec's jails, making up 4.4 percent of the prison population, but only represented 1.3 percent of Quebec's population as of 2011.
All this adds up to an urgent need for concrete changes in how Montreal interacts with the city's urban Aboriginal community.
The new collaboration agreement will see the Montreal police establish an Aboriginal Advisory Committee that would shape police training, bring forward concerns from the community and help chose a newly-created Aboriginal liaison officer. The SPVM also agreed to force-wide, mandatory education of officers; creating prevention programs to reduce arrests, ticketing and incarceration; and, importantly, to creating a protocol for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW).
While the elements of the MMIW protocol still need to be discussed and established by the community itself, some of the early ideas include setting up regulations to ensure regular contact with families during investigations, creating programs that help prevent violence towards Aboriginal women (including better educating men), and ensuring safety and support for the many Inuit women who come to Montreal from their communities in the north and arrive in the city with few resources.
While such a protocol is a first, the agreement as a whole is also a rarity, said Alana Boileau, the Justice and Public Security Co-ordinator with Quebec Native Women. In most other cities, she says, it is the municipality or police who establish their own policies, which may not reflect the concerns or needs of the community. In this case, the agreement was developed by Montreal's urban Aboriginal community through consultations with both organizations and individuals, including a committee of urban Aboriginal people who have faced homelessness in Montreal. Only then was the agreement brought to the police.
"This agreement stems from the ground up, it comes from the community," she said. "The community came to the police and said, we want an agreement."
Some may be cynical about such an agreement: Over recent years, Montreal police have come under heavy criticism for racial profiling and bad relations with the city's homeless population, including incidents such as the killing of Alain Magloire. But Marc Parent believes that this kind of agreement shows the police force is turning a corner, and he committed to more work being done.
"This initiative is from the bottom up […] so the good news in that is that we already have a good relation with them. But it doesn't mean that we don't need to educate and train our people to be better." Parent also said he is pleased that this is one of the last agreements he will be signing before leaving the police force. His term as chief ends in September 2015.
Aboriginal organizers see room to be hopeful, too, said Jen Brazeau, coordinator of the MUACSN.
According to Brazeau, the SPVM had been "proactive" throughout the discussions, including appointing a new Aboriginal liaison officer before the agreement was even signed. "This shows really good will on their part," she said. She also pointed out that an important component going forward will be the Aboriginal Advisory Committee that will help keep an eye on the SPVM's progress and continue to work with other community members.
The new agreement with the SPVM comes as part of a broader push by the MUACSN for better services and support for Montreal's growing urban Aboriginal community, especially those who continue to suffer trauma from colonialism and initiatives like residential schools. This includes the Cabot Square Project, named for a Montreal park that serves as a gathering space for many members of the city's Aboriginal population, particularly Inuit people. When that park was shut down a few years ago for renovations—without consultation with the Aboriginal community—it highlighted the need for services to be strengthened. The result has been a community-led push on everything from restorative justice projects to help keep people out of prison, to a café in the park (set to re-open in early July) that employs Aboriginal people who are either homeless or have precarious living conditions. The MUACSN's efforts to improve support in that small part of downtown Montreal inspired the city-wide agreement.
The network is also looking forward to other community-led initiatives, including the establishment of an Aboriginal Justice Centre and an Aboriginal Health Centre that will provide services by and for the Montreal Aboriginal population to help improve living conditions, reduce homelessness and keep people from being criminalized.
"We really need to try and find innovative ways to change the demographics and opportunities of the Aboriginal people in Montreal," said Brazeau. Improving how Montreal's police treat the city's Aboriginal population is just one part of that puzzle.
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