Since the broadcast of a report by Radio-Canada investigative program Enquête in which a dozen Indigenous women accused police officers of sexual abuse of themselves or their friends, the eyes of Quebec have turned to the mining town of Val-d'Or, in Abitibi. In November, Quebec’s director of criminal and penal prosecutions created turmoil by saying that no charges would be laid in 37 criminal files opened on the matter.
After the women spoke out against their alleged assailants, they turned to the Val-d'Or Native Friendship Centre. Édith Cloutier, who was born in Val-d'Or and raised by an Algonquin mother and francophone Québécois father, has run the centre for over 25 years. The difficult tasks of leadership and of forging ties between communities fall into her hands. Here, she speaks about the progress made over the last year and the idea of a provincial public inquiry, which she considers necessary to move forward.
In mid-November, the director of criminal and penal prosecutions announced that no charges would be laid against the accused officers. How did the women react?
The women themselves were deeply disappointed. They are very concerned. They expressed their feelings in a joint statement, which they co-signed.
How do Indigenous people feel about the justice system in Val-d'Or at this time?
There is a breach of trust in the justice system and the police system. Everything will have to be rebuilt on that level. More and more voices are calling for an independent investigation. This approach would allow women to demand the truth. Since women have come forward publicly, we have received dozens of letters of support from organizations and women's groups to support our request to shed light on what is happening.
The government of Quebec announced its intention, instead of setting up an independent inquiry, to put the matter in the hands of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. Do you think this approach will lead to something constructive?
We welcome the establishment of the federal commission announced in August, which was demanded for many years. On the other hand, we have some reservations about this approach for the women of Val-d'Or. The mandate of the national inquiry is very, very broad, but its foundation rests on the issues surrounding missing or murdered women. The inquiry has a mandate of two years, and four months after the establishment of the commission, the work has not yet begun.
We have a specific context in Quebec, so the province is in the best position to act in this situation. In Quebec, with some exceptions, the police are under provincial jurisdiction. What happened occurred in the city and affects women who live in the city. The focus must be on the relationship between police and women in Quebec. If the province passes the matter on to the federal government, the province fails to meet its responsibilities. We need a specifically Quebec approach, and for that, the primary responsibility falls to the government of Quebec.
On Dec. 11, the creation of a team dedicated to Quebec for the national inquiry was announced. To what extent did this decision meet your expectations?
This is good news because language is an issue for Indigenous people in Quebec who do not speak English. Quebec, including Indigenous Quebec, is often overlooked in the anglophone reality of Canada. But will this change the situation for Indigenous women in Val-d'Or who have spoken out and called for an independent public inquiry in Quebec? I still believe that it is the responsibility of the Quebec government to establish an independent commission of inquiry into the relationship between the police and First Nations, particularly with regard to the women of Val-d'Or and the police authority. We must document all the complaints and shed light on them.
Ideally, a Quebec inquiry would address this whole issue of abuse of authority and systemic racism, and help rebuild trust. The national inquiry could act in addition to one set up by Quebec. Further, a Quebec commission would be able to restrict its mandate to the events in Val-d'Or and deliver a report with recommendations 18 months after its establishment. At the federal level, we understand that the work of the national inquiry will span three years, and it has not yet begun. This means that the report won’t be produced until 2019 or 2020.
At the Friendship Centre, how long have you been aware that there was something wrong with the relationship between residents and the police?
I am from Val-d'Or and have been working at the Friendship Centre for 27 years. The Friendship Centre has been around for 44 years, and that’s how long we have been fighting systemic racism, discrimination and prejudice, including at the police level.
How did you react when the women decided to speak out?
When they started talking, our role was to make sure they were well supported. The fact that it was not one or two people, but a whole community that said "we see the abuse and we want it to stop so our children and grandchildren do not have to live through it" was striking, and we told the women that we would be with them to the end. In May 2015 [when the episode of Enquête was shot], we knew that we were entering a new dimension of the struggle for justice, and we still struggle to be recognized. We knew it was going to upset things. We are entering an important social transformation.
In view of all that has happened, can you in good conscience encourage new potential victims to testify?
Absolutely. If you are a victim of abuse, you must report it. Every week we hear about allegations of disturbing behaviour. Abuse continues. If we do not denounce it, what is our alternative? We do not have one. People have to file a complaint. We have the telephone line of the Montreal police and the independent investigation office that has just opened. The pressure must be maintained, and the only way to do so is by continuing to speak.
What kind of support do the complainants receive?
At the Friendship Centre, we offer psychological, cultural and legal support. They have the support of an Indigenous lawyer who has agreed to help the women pro bono as well as their families and friends. We do not want women to be abandoned. I will continue to encourage people to file a complaint, even though [victims] often feel like second-class citizens.
Will women need to testify again in a provincial inquiry?
The provincial inquiry would have the power to summon the Sûreté du Québec [provincial police organization] and others. For the women, it will be necessary to testify and be cross-examined. It will not be easy. The difference between this kind of investigation and a trial is that for the investigation, the goal is not to bring charges but to bring light. Women will have to prepare as for a trial. They have been ready to go to court, and now they must be ready to change the system. They have had tough lives, but they are very committed. They are very aware that they are contributing to something important.
On Enquête, you promised to do everything in your power to support the complainants. How satisfied are you with what you have been able to do?
For me, Enquête was an earthquake, a 10 on the Richter scale. From the first day, the First Nations leaders — the Assembly of First Nations, the Grand Council of the Crees, Quebec Native Women , among others — and the mayor of Val-d'Or gave us great support, which allowed us to get through all this. We have shaken the government with this human tragedy. The focus now is on the collective responsibility we have to rebuild trust, stop the violence and expose a situation that is not unique. There are other Val-d'Ors.