The Quebec government will investigate its provincial police and take immediate action to improve the living conditions of indigenous people following the release of two damning reports on the treatment of the province's Aboriginal women and youth.
In an emotional press conference today that brought her to tears, Lise Theriault, Quebec's minister of public safety, announced eight police officers had been suspended, one day after Radio-Canada's flagship investigation program Enquête broadcast allegations of assault perpetrated by members of the Val d'Or force against indigenous women. The report features interviews with women who claim police physically and sexually harmed them.
This story comes on the heels of an extensive investigation published in La Presse, which revealed that in the last 15 years, 259 indigenous youth had died in violent or mysterious circumstances in the province. By poring over more than 3,000 coroners reports, reporters found that Quebec's Aboriginal youth were dying at a rate three to four times higher than in the rest of the province, and that many of the deaths could have been prevented with better access to resources and services.
The reports have prompted strong reaction. The province's chief coroner, Catherine Rudel-Tessier, has said she is considering an inquest on the high mortality rates of indigenous children. And this morning, Theriault broke down as she called for an independent investigation of the Val d'Or allegations. "It's time for us to act," she said.
The details of Radio-Canada's story paint a picture of systemic abuse of power in a community still reeling from other cases of missing and murdered women. In 2003, Indigenous woman Jeannie Poucachiche was found dead on a Val d'Or highway, and local resident Cindy Ruperthouse has been missing since 2014. Ruperthouse's parents told Enquête reporters they were the first ones to visit their house. "No police has ever been here," said father Johnny Wylde.
Enquête's conversations with local women yielded explosive allegations against provincial police officers. "They would ask me, do you want beer, and they would have some in their trunk," alleged Bianca Moushoun. "Then we'd take a path into the woods and that's where they would ask me to perform fellatio," she told reporter Josée Dupuis, adding that she received similar requests from at least seven officers. The men, she said, were usually on duty and in uniform and would ask her to keep quiet. Not always in so many words, Moushon said, "but I understood they were threatening me."
Another woman, Priscillia Papatie, said she was violently thrown into a police cruiser after refusing to give an officer her cellphone password. Sobbing, she recounted how the officer took her to a Walmart parking lot and roughed her up before abandoning her there in the middle of winter. "When I [called to] complain, they said they'd call me back," she said, adding she was never contacted again.
On Thursday, before the Enquête broadcast, Sûreté du Québec spokesperson Martine Asselin told VICE News the eight men named in the allegations were still on the job. "Because these are only allegations, there are no consequences for the moment," she said, explaining that officers are only sanctioned once they face charges.
Asselin said the SQ was taking the case very seriously, and that the police force's internal "Direction des normes professionnelles" department had been investigating the case since May 2015. When asked if an independent inquest was being considered, Asselin replied this was only necessary in cases involving death or life threatening injuries.
But Friday, amid the public outrage sparked by the story, the provincial police announced the eight officers would in fact be put on administrative leave. Minister Theriault also revealed the SPVM — Montreal's police force — would be leading an independent investigation into the allegations. When criticized for not intervening sooner, Theriault told reporters that Enquête's story had brought forth information that had until then been unknown to officials.
SQ media relations chief Capt. Guy Lapointe called the suspensions an "exceptional measure" and said the force would work to regain the public's trust. "I don't think there is a problem elsewhere in Quebec," he said, "[The allegations] in no way reflect the values of the Sûreté du Québec or the professionalism of our 5,700 officers."
Lapointe says the force will also review its training. "We've decided to put together a team, a work group that will look at our programs, the courses that are given to our officers who work with aboriginal people, to make sure that we adapt our work as much as possible." When asked about the current training programs pertaining to Indigenous people, SQ spokesperson Asselin had told VICE News that officers received a mandatory one or two day training session on "the occurrence of Indigenous homelessness."
Alana Boileau, justice and public security coordinator for Quebec Native Women's Association, says the case is heartbreaking. "We're not surprised," she says of the allegations. "This continues to be the impact of discriminatory and racist systems," she says.
"It's unfortunate that this kind of crisis has to declare itself in order to call attention," she says of the recent media reports. "That being said, it's great to see aboriginal issues in the forefront, it's great that people are beginning to realize that there is a crisis going on in different Aboriginal communities and hopefully this will bring attention to and underscore the need for people to be more sensitized."
While Prime Minister-designate Justin Trudeau has committed to launch a national inquiry into murdered and missing Aboriginal women, the latest stories have also amplified calls for a broader provincial investigation. So far, Quebec has already committed to a study on the issue of violence against indigenous women, which could start as early as December. Indigenous leaders also hope the government will soon dedicate funding for a coroner's inquest into youth mortality rates.
Boileau says she hopes to see less talk, more action. "The next steps will be making sure that everyone who is already working on these issues can get together and that these kinds of conversations and consultations are followed by concrete measures and actions, and most importantly, funding. Because that's really what's needed."
Follow Brigitte Noel on Twitter: @Brige_Noel