Kidnapped by the cops: ‘Starlight tours’ in Val-d’Or

Eleven formal complaints were filed against the police force, but that could just be the tip of the iceberg
Christopher Curtis
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They abducted Jerry Anichnapéo outside a boarding house on the edge of town.

There was no warning; the officers pulled up, jumped him, shackled his hands and forced Anichnapéo into the backseat of a patrol car. They drove down a barren highway until the lights over Val-d’Or faded into the background.

The driver pulled to the side of the road so they could yank Anichnapéo from his seat onto the gravel and uncuff him. When he looked up, he was staring down the barrel of a gun.

“I thought he was going to kill me,” said Anichnapéo. “So I jumped into the ditch and ran towards the woods. I hid there for three hours. When the coast was clear, I walked away from the city, I walked five hours to the reserve in Lac Simon.

“I tried to hitchhike but no one would pick me up.”

This wasn’t standard police work. There were no outstanding warrants for Anichnapéo. He wasn’t taken to Sûreté du Québec detachment 144 in Val d’Or for questioning.

This was a kidnapping.

A dark highway

After they took Anichnapéo that night in the summer of 2013, he spent nearly two years in hiding, staying with a relative in the Anishinaabe territory of Kitcisakik until the heat died down.

He admits he’d had a few run-ins with police in the past. Anichnapéo has a criminal record and he struggled with alcoholism for most of his adult life, drifting in and out of homelessness for the past 32 years.

But that night, he swears he was just walking down 3rd Ave., minding his own business.

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What happened to Anichnapéo has a name. They call it a “starlight tour,” when police pick up an Indigenous person for being disruptive, drunk or simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Once they have them in the patrol car, they drive the person outside city limits and force them to walk back.

Until recently, this was thought of as something that mostly happens in the prairies, where people like Neil Stonechild, Rodney Naistus and Lawrence Wegner froze to death after being nabbed by the police in Saskatchewan.

But in 2015, Montreal police investigated eight alleged incidents of starlight tours in the city of Val-d’Or and surrounding Abitibi region. Their investigation came after an explosive report by Radio-Canada alleging police abuse against Indigenous women in the gold mining city.

During the course of the investigation, another three people came forward, alleging they too had been abducted by police.

“All of these 11 claims were from Abitibi. There was clearly something going on in Val-d’Or,” said Fannie Lafontaine, a law professor appointed by the provincial government to audit the police investigation.

“The typical story was, ‘I was on the steps of Le Manoir (bar), I had been drinking, police picked me up, I thought I was going to the station but they kept driving.”

The police usually chose to drive down Baie Carrière Rd., a dark two-lane highway that leads into the woods and doesn’t see much through traffic.

“This happened in the dark, sometimes when people had been drinking. It happened away from witnesses and in many cases it took years for people to come forward,” said Lafontaine.

“It’s not like you write it down in your agenda, ‘Oh, on Sept. 3 I went for a beer with my friend at Le Manoir.’ And when you’re in the back of a squad car, you can’t see the police’s faces.

“None of that makes for an easy case to prosecute. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. It happened.”

The 11 cases have not been tested in court because none led to criminal charges against SQ officers. The Montreal police handed their files over to the Crown prosecutors, who determined in 2016 that there wasn’t enough evidence to produce a criminal conviction.

Even so, Lafontaine, the Montreal police and the prosecutors who reviewed these cases said the claims are credible.

‘Clean up’ time

Over the past two months, I’ve spent about three weeks in Val-d’Or interviewing people about their relationship with police. Almost all of the two dozen Indigenous folk I’ve spoken to either know someone who has been abducted by police or say they themselves were the victim of a starlight tour.

Only Anichnapéo would go on record. But he never reported his case to the SQ’s ethics board or to the Montreal police. Another source who spoke to Ricochet about their experience but didn’t want to be named said they didn’t come forward either.

“Who was I going to tell, the police?” they said. “It happened. It was awful. It was humiliating and terrifying all at once. You walk back into town with tears streaming down your face. It’s cold, it’s dark and cars drive past you without even slowing down.”

Lafontaine says it’s impossible to know how widespread the practice of starlight tours was and whether it persists.

“I can only tell you what people told police. There are other cases out there for sure,” said Lafontaine, who teaches law at Université Laval. “There are likely people who didn’t come forward and who never will. It is an incredibly scary thing to denounce your abuser, especially when that person is in such a powerful position.”

Most of the stories come from a period when the city was under pressure to “clean up” downtown Val-d’Or, between 2008 and 2014. In testimony at the Viens Commission into racism against Indigenous people, SQ Commander Jean-Pierre Pelletier said that there was a growing sense of “insecurity” among the citizens of Val-d’Or.

Police issued an increasing number of tickets for loitering, public intoxication and disturbing the peace. In a 2010 survey that asked how safe downtown felt on a scale of 1 to 10, Val-d’Or merchants gave it a rating of 5.57.

“Back then, merchants downtown were beginning to suffer and they were quick to blame Indigenous people,” said Romeo Saganash, the MP representing Val-d’Or at the time. “They were pressuring city hall and the mayor to do something about it.

“But in reality, businesses were moving away from the old downtown, where there was limited parking and space, to the malls and parking lots further (east). The homeless just sort of became an easy target.”

Anichnapéo says it was in these years that the whispers began — women talking about being beaten and sexually abused by officers patrolling the bars and shops along 3rd Ave. in Val-d’Or.

“I was the only one who would get in their face and confront the police when they picked women up,” Anichnapéo said. “I would say, ‘Are you taking them to the station or the woods? We know what you’ve been doing!’

I remember one of them told me, ‘You’re going to knock this off, my boy.’”

Jerry Anichnapéo
Christopher Curtis

‘It’s hard to trust’

Of the 11 claims about starlight tours that went before investigators, seven victims were women and four were men. About half also included claims of assault or armed assault by officers.

Saganash said the system to file a complaint against a police officer was both complicated and inaccessible to most of the victims.

“I would offer to have people come to my riding office in Val-d’Or where we would print out the forms and fill them together but it was hard to get people to take that next step,” Saganash said. “It requires a leap of faith to believe that someone might believe you, that your word is worth something against the word of a police officer.

“If you’ve never had the system work for you, if you’re going to the police about the conduct of police officers, it’s hard to trust that it will work for you.”

Anichnapéo’s earliest experience with justice came when he was a child in residential school in Louvicourt. While there, as a ward of the state, he was sexually assaulted by an Oblate priest.

He was too young to understand exactly what had happened but he knew it was wrong, so he told the principal.

“She didn’t believe me, she called me a little liar,” he recounted, over 40 years later. A tear formed in his eyes. “So it just kept happening.”

Victims in the Montreal police investigation waited years before coming forward and, even then, some stopped cooperating midway through the probe, according to Lafontaine’s report. Can you blame them?

Around 2014, Saganash worked with Val-d’Or mayor Pierre Corbeil, Liberal MNA Guy Bourgeois and stakeholders in the city to try to begin to address the homelessness crisis downtown. They held monthly meetings with the Native Friendship Centre, La Piaule homeless shelter and the police to try to figure out a better way forward.

During these meetings the group put together a new patrol that would pair officers with outreach workers who could try to find an alternative to simply incarcerating the homeless. Things got better.

“The police know me now in a different way than they did back then,” said Anichnapéo. “They see a person when they see me. That wasn’t always the case.”

The cost of going public

When the Radio-Canada journalists came to town to investigate claims of police abuse in 2015, Anichnapéo spoke up about the starlight tour because, he was told, it would help bring justice to the women he cared about. So he did a brave thing and appeared on camera, using his real name.

The department knew the exposé was coming, months before it was broadcast, because they’d been told by the journalists and the Native Friendship Centre. Over the course of the next few months, Anichnapéo was hit with thousands of dollars in municipal fines issued by the same police department under investigation by Radio-Canada.

Because he was homeless and couldn’t afford to pay the fines, a judge sentenced him to 39 months in federal prison.

When the Radio-Canada report aired, in October 2015, Anichnapéo became a sort of celebrity in the Archambault Penitentiary.

“The other inmates were like brothers after that. There was a real solidarity there,” he said.

While locked up, Anichnapéo met Cyndy Wylde, a probation officer and Anishinaabe woman from Abitibi.

“Federal sentences are reserved for the most hardened criminals, not people who can’t afford to pay fines,” said Wylde. “Was he being punished because he spoke out? Was he targeted by the same officers he denounced to reporters? These are all questions that his situation begs.

“As for starlight tours, what Jerry said wasn’t surprising to me or anyone who grew up near Val-d’Or. These weren’t urban legends. It happened to people from my home community. Everyone has a story they can tell but most chose not to.”

It was Wylde who told me to seek out Anichnapéo back when I first interviewed her in September. I called around his hometown of Kitcisakik, left messages at some of the shelters in Val-d’Or and then, just two weeks ago, got a call from his parole officer.

“Jerry wants to talk to you,” the man said. “Your best bet is to show up at Chez Willie around lunchtime. He’s a regular.”

When I met Anichnapéo, he was sitting on a park bench in Val-d’Or with friends, celebrating his birthday.

“Are you Jerry?” I asked.

He pointed to a man sitting next to him and waited for me to ask him. I fell for it hook, line and sinker. Anichnapéo cackled. I was warned he had a rather cutting sense of humour.

These days he sleeps on the streets, on someone’s couch or at the La Piaule shelter on Sullivan Rd. Sometimes he’ll go to Chez Willie for a warm cup of coffee and a game of bingo. COVID or not, the workers there usually give him a hug and an audience for whatever joke or cock and bull story he’s just come up with.

“He’s what we call ‘un coeur,’” said Coco, a former barmaid who runs the day centre. “He’s got a big heart and a sense of humour that can pull him through the hardest times.”

He’s just 50 but his skin is sun beaten and has a few fresh scrapes. Even so, he stands tall and keeps in shape by walking everywhere.

“He’s a warrior, he always pulls through,” Wylde said.

They say Anichnapéo sometimes carries a turtle figurine in his pocket. Someone gave it to him after he spoke out during the Radio-Canada investigation because, they say, he’s tough and sturdy.

Before we spoke he wanted to have a drink to settle his nerves, but Coco took him aside and spoke to him gently.

“Take time to collect yourself but don’t drink,” she said. “And don’t do it for me, don’t do it for yourself, do it for the turtle.”

He gathered his courage and we talked as the others at Chez Willie played bingo and ate brownies. Soon, he will be moving into his own place. He’ll get some art supplies and start painting again.

“I did one of the murals at the Friendship Centre,” he said. “I’m an artist like my brother and like my uncle before me.”

He pulled the collar of his shirt down to reveal an eagle tattoo on his chest.

“I did that with a needle and some ink, using a mirror to see better,” he said.

“Sometimes I wonder what my life would be like if I had never been to residential school. I can’t say exactly how it would have been, but I don’t think I’d be sitting here talking to you. But who knows?”

After we spoke, he gave me a hug and left out the back door of Chez Willie, disappearing into the night.

Just then, Coco said something that stayed with me.

“I wish he didn’t have to be so strong.”

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