Quebec ‘missed a huge opportunity’ to address systemic racism

Premier Legault remains in denial of systemic racism, no matter the evidence
Christopher Curtis
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He was a prisoner and she was not.

No matter how similar their lives had been up to this point, there was no ignoring that one devastating truth in the first meeting between Cyndy Wylde and “Greg.”

Greg shared a cellblock with hard men: killers and drug traffickers, people deemed so dangerous to society that they slept in a cage, surrounded by stone walls and guard towers. Cindy Wylde, who became Greg’s parole officer that day they met in 2016, lived down the street from a farmers’ market that sells antique mirrors and organic popsicles.

And yet, the two shared a deep connection: They were roughly the same age, born in Anishnaabe communities in Quebec’s Abitibi region. Wylde’s mother gave birth to her at 16 years old, after leaving residential school.

I don’t think he would be in prison if he were white.

Wylde’s grandparents raised her in Pikogan, a reserve about 600 kilometres northwest of Montreal. Greg’s grandparents were also his primary caregivers. Both children were born into poverty.

“My village was basically two dirt roads that intersected, a dozen shacks up the river from a pulp and paper town called Amos,” said Wylde. “His home would have been nearly identical. We were a living legacy of the residential school system.

“But there we were in my office, we just sat there trying to figure out where things had fallen apart for him.”

Greg was serving a federal stint in Laval for the crime of having left municipal fines unpaid in Val-d’Or — tickets like loitering, public intoxication and the like. It was essentially the crime of being homeless in that city.

“That was it,” said Wylde. “He was in federal prison, serving a three-year sentence, for unpaid tickets. I don’t think he would be in prison if he were white. I had never seen that before in almost 25 years in the correctional system.

“Well, I had seen it one other time. And, in that case, the prisoner was Cree.”

‘Telling us what we were seeing wasn’t real’

Wylde has been thinking about Greg a lot lately.

She was one of 37 Indigenous women who signed an open letter to Quebec Premier François Legault on Saturday, imploring him to recognize the existence of systemic racism against Indigenous people in the province.

The women, who hail from each of the 11 Indigenous Peoples in Quebec, say that Legault could — by uttering those two little words — show the kind of courage and leadership needed to restore some semblance of faith in the government.

This isn’t the first time we’ve had this conversation, but Wylde said recently she has felt the ground shifting in Quebec.

being Indigenous in the province, as a matter of course, means a person won’t have access to the same quality of services

Two weeks ago, a 37-year-old Atikamekw mother died in a Joliette hospital while a nurse and staff member berated her with racist taunts. The only reason we know is because the woman, Joyce Echaquan, filmed it on her phone and broadcast the scene live on Facebook.

The video is gut-wrenching; Echaquan wails and pleads for help but her cries are met with a mix of indifference and hatred.

It could be the most clear-cut example of systemic racism in Quebec. And it came nearly one year to the day after the release of a parliamentary report that explains, in great detail, how being Indigenous in the province, as a matter of course, means a person won’t have access to the same quality of healthcare, education and government services as a non-Indigenous person.

Even worse, Indigenous people are disproportionately targeted by police, thrown in jail and have their children taken from them for offences that would often go unnoticed if they were white.

The Viens Commission report relied on the testimony of legal experts, police officers and countless others whose voices led the commission to conclude that the game, for lack of a better term, is rigged against Indigenous folk.

Back then, Premier Legault wouldn’t dare utter the words “systemic racism.”

But now there was something far more visceral than another government document destined for the wastebin. This time it seemed irrefutable, this evidence that healthcare workers can be so brazen about their prejudice as to weaponize it in a life-or-death situation.

Still, Legault could not bring himself to say the words. Racism existed in Quebec and some its institutions, he said, but systemic racism was something that happened in places like the United States.

“It felt like the last straw,” said Wylde. “It felt like these old men are just clinging to that last vestige of power over us. It was like they’re telling us how we could feel and they were telling us what we were seeing wasn’t real. It was enough.”

So she signed her name alongside social workers, artists, journalists and chiefs, who came from across Canada’s largest province but shared the same struggle.

‘That was a life he had taken from him’

Wylde could point to any number of examples from her own life to illustrate the problem. At the height of racial tensions around the Oka Crisis in 1990, she remembers driving north on Highway 117 to visit relatives in Pikogan. Provincial police pulled her over six times in the 220-kilometre span between Grand-Remous and Louvicourt.

“I wasn’t speeding, there wasn’t a busted tail light on my car, I was just a 17-year-old kid with dark skin and dark hair,” said Wylde. “It was systematic. Every squad car I came across on the highway flashed their sirens, pulled me over, checked my identification and made me wait.

“They wanted to break me, they wanted me to know I was powerless against them. I almost screamed. I almost cried. But I knew enough, even at 17, to know that if I did that, they would win.”

Like a lot of young Indigenous people in Quebec, Wylde discovered what it meant to be hated simply because of who she was. But she also recognized that, to some degree, she had been spared the hardships that people like Greg encountered for most of their lives.

“It was run by priests who were revered in the community. These were clergymen who baptized their children, who officiated their weddings and buried their dead. But the whole time, they were also raping their children. These kids never had a chance.”

When Wylde sat across from Greg in that prison office four years ago, she learned exactly where their lives had diverged.

By the time Wylde was old enough to go to school, her mother gained custody and took her south for an education in Montreal. There, she got to experience the things so many of us take for granted — devoted teachers who care for children in a safe, loving environment.

Greg was sent to the Notre-Dame-de-la-Route residential school with dozens of other kids from his community. Once there, they would be beaten, sexually assaulted and systematically broken down by the Oblate priests who ran the school.

“His first sexual experiences were of being assaulted by an adult,” Wylde said. “He didn’t know what consent was, he thought that’s how sexuality worked. It took him years to unlearn that. It turned him into an abuser.

“You cannot ignore that fact of his life and the effect it had on his children, the mother of his children. The mere fact of being born Indigenous doomed him to a life no one deserves.”

A source who worked in the Crown prosecutor’s office in the 1980s says it was like clockwork.

“Almost to a man, if an Anishnaabe in (Greg’s hometown) was convicted of sexual abuse, he had attended Notre-Dame-de-la-Route,” the source said. “It was run by priests who were revered in the community. These were clergymen who baptized their children, who officiated their weddings and buried their dead.

“But the whole time, they were also raping their children. These kids never had a chance.”

When she took over his file, Wylde looked into Greg’s eyes and saw a kindness piercing through. She saw someone who never had a chance. She saw someone she could help. And she did.

Greg got out of prison, he reconnected with his kids, he got sober and he began to work through the trauma he suffered as a child. Wylde reaches out to him now and again.

He doesn’t always have access to a phone but she’ll put the word out with a friend of Greg’s. He usually calls back within a few days.

“He has a special place in my heart,” Wylde said. “That was a life he had taken from him. His own life. Some of his best years were wasted in jail or on the streets. At some point, someone in a police uniform decided he was a deviant and decided to impose their own form of justice on him.”

Viens Commission, a missed opportunity

Wylde worked with retired judge Jacques Viens on the parliamentary commission bearing his name.

For the better part of two years, she fought to make sure people like Greg could say their piece to commissioners, so that it could be etched into Quebec history.

“I’m proud of the work we did,” she said. “At the same time, I can’t help but feel like we missed a huge opportunity.”

The commission’s work led to an historic apology from Premier Legault to Indigenous people living in Quebec. It put together 142 recommendations to put the province and the 11 Indigenous Peoples in Quebec on a path toward reconciliation.

Only a handful of those recommendations, including the apology and sensitivity training programs for police officers, have been implemented in the past year. And while Quebec has put aside $200 million to implement the reco, little of that money has been spent or earmarked for specific actions.

“It was a way for people or even the police to deny reality itself. It was a way for them to tell the women they either didn’t believe them or they simply sided with the police regardless of what the facts were.”

The commission emerged as a direct result of Radio-Canada’s investigation that put forward allegations of widespread police abuse of Indigenous women in Val-d’Or. Twelve women told the public broadcaster that they’d been beaten and sexually assaulted by officers in the Sûreté du Québec, the provincial police force.

The Radio-Canada report led to a Montreal police investigation of the SQ officers in question. In all, they examined dozens of criminal complaints, determining that each was well founded enough to transfer to the Crown prosecutor’s office.

The Crown did not pursue charges because there wasn’t enough corroborating evidence to back the victims’ testimony.

Even so, Wylde believes it would have been a gesture of good faith for the SQ to make a formal, public apology.

“The first thing that should have been done would have been to demand an apology from the SQ to those women,” she said. “It’s something that the RCMP has had the courage to do.

“There could have been recommendations for reforming police. SQ officers wearing body cameras is something the women felt would have protected them. But there was nothing.”

Instead of seeing contrition from the police, the women whose testimony sparked the public inquiry saw defiance within the SQ.

After the report aired, people and police in Val-d’Or began wearing red bracelets emblazoned with 144, the SQ detachment’s number. Wylde says it frustrated Judge Viens but he was powerless to stop the practice.

“Those red bracelets were seen as a form of intimidation,” said Wylde. “It was a way for people or even the police to deny reality itself. It was a way for them to tell the women they either didn’t believe them or they simply sided with the police regardless of what the facts were.”

Greg had spoken publicly at the time about being taken on a “starlight tour” — when police take a drunk Indigenous person in their squad car and drop them far outside the city, forcing them to walk home in the dark.

Over the following months, he received thousands of dollars of fines, culminating in his arrest and federal sentence.

Tyranny of the majority

The death of Joyce Echaquan has, once again, forced Quebec’s government to play defence on Indigenous issues. And once again, we seem to be at an impasse: Premier Legault will admit the government needs to do better and that what happened to Echaquan is an indication that not everyone is equal when seeking help from the state.

But even in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary, he will not concede that the government is involuntarily contributing to a system that marginalizes Quebec’s First Peoples.

And while he fired Sylvie d’Amours from the position of Indigenous affairs minister because, he contends, her department needed a shot in the arm, he replaced her with Ian Lafrenière, a 20-year veteran of the Montreal police.

“It doesn’t send the best message,” said Wylde. “It isn’t anything against Lafrenière personally, but he represented a police department that’s embroiled in its own controversy around racial profiling.”

During a press conference this week, Premier Legault tried to put the matter of systemic racism to bed once and for all.

“You have people in this province who believe there’s a systemic problem and you have people who believe there’s racism but that it isn’t systemic,” he said Wednesday. The second group “is a large part of the electorate. And it would be unwise of us to turn our backs on them.”

In other words, if Quebec’s white majority doesn’t believe in systemic racism, that’s evidence enough for the premier.

This article was produced through The Rover, Christopher Curtis’s investigative journalism project with Ricochet. Sign up below for Curtis’s weekly newsletters from the front lines of journalism.

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