“You’re going to protect me, right?”

Adrienne Anichinapéo’s voice trembled as she recounted Cynthia’s plea. Their friendship went back 40 years, to a time when they’d chase each other around the schoolyard and “raise hell” in the woods.

It wasn’t easy growing up in Kitcisakik, a settlement of cabins carved into the boreal forest. Back then, they lived off the land, fishing, hunting and harvesting pelts from traplines that’d been in their families for generations.

No, it wasn’t easy living without running water or electricity to carry them through the long winters. But it bound them to each other and the land that had sustained their ancestors for centuries.

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Now, in middle age, they stood facing each other from vastly different stations in life. Anichinapéo was a council chief with connections to Anishnaabe leaders across northwestern Quebec. Cynthia had struggled through a series of personal tragedies that pushed her from the forest and into a cycle of poverty and addiction on the streets of Val-d’Or — a mining city 127 kilometres north of their home.

Now, Cynthia was coming to her old friend with a secret.

She was one of 12 Indigenous women about to go public with allegations that they were physically and sexually abused by officers from the Sûreté du Québec, the province’s police force. Their testimony would be broadcast on Enquête, a Radio-Canada program with a national audience.

Cynthia may not have known she was part of a reckoning. She may not have known that the Radio-Canada report — which alleged shocking levels of violence against Indigenous people in Val-d’Or — would trigger a police investigation, a parliamentary commission and a historic apology from Quebec’s government.

But Cynthia was keenly aware of one thing: her participation in the report might make her some powerful enemies.

So she asked Anichinapéo that fateful question.

“You’re going to protect me, right?”

Anichinapéo didn’t hesitate.

Of course she would be there, of course she would fight shoulder to shoulder with Cynthia if things got tough. And they did.

Adrienne Anichinapéo
Christopher Curtis

‘The tension of Val d’Or’

Just hours after the report aired in October 2015, Quebec’s minister of public security broke down in tears at a press conference, where she announced the Montreal police would investigate the claims broadcast on Radio-Canada.

Though they were never named, the six SQ officers targeted by the report were placed on administrative leave and their colleagues came under scrutiny from every major media outlet in Canada.

But the police fought back.

Every officer that worked at the SQ’s Val-d’Or detachment — scores of them — called in sick the morning after the investigation was announced. There was no equivocating; they stood in solidarity with their colleagues.

Their reaction to a report alleging police beat and sexually exploited Indigenous women was to simply refuse to serve the city they’d sworn an oath to protect.

It made for an explosive climate, one that forced the people of Val-d’Or to choose between believing the testimony of 12 women and supporting Quebec’s largest police force.

Some residents marched through the city’s streets in solidarity with police, wearing red bracelets emblazoned with “144” — the SQ’s detachment number.

“There is a lot of prejudice. It doesn’t mean there isn’t love and understanding too. There is. But some people’s attitudes are frozen in time.”

The national media descended on Val-d’Or. They made their way from Montreal in rented trucks, sputtering up Route 117 as it twisted its way around an endless patchwork of lakes and thick bush before finally arriving at their destination some 530 kilometres north.

Things were different up there. In Montreal, people could live off the resources of a place like this — the gold, copper and timber that fuel entire sectors of the economy — without so much as seeing a tree cut down.

But there is no looking away in Val-d’Or.

The one road into the city loops around a 500-foot mining pit before stopping at a set of traffic lights in the heart of downtown. A left-hand turn takes you to 3rd Ave. with its charming storefronts and dusty pickup trucks parked diagonally off the main drag. The microbrewery and café are a nod to the comforts of a big city but they share space with the miners’ union hall and motels that rent rooms by the month.

And unlike most cities in Quebec, Val-d’Or — home to more than 30,000 people — has a significant Indigenous population mixed in with the settlers. They mostly come from four nearby Anishnaabe communities: Lac-Simon, Winneway and Kitcisakik to the south and Pikogan about an hour’s drive northwest.

But Val-d’Or is also the urban centre for the Cree who live in villages along the James Bay coast some 1,000 kilometres north. The city’s hockey rink — Centre Air Creebec — is a nod to the economic relationship between the Cree and Val-d’Or’s business class.

The Indigenous folk in town come to attend college, to find a job in the mines and to take advantage of the amenities a city can offer. But there are also those who’ve been pushed from their home communities because of a housing crisis, limited access to running water or to flee an abusive relationship.

“The tension of Val-d’Or is that it’s a place that derives its wealth off minerals that come from stolen land. It’s a lot easier to take things from people if you don’t consider them your equals.”

The city isn’t always welcoming to those in need.

“I’ve spoken to landlords who’ll say, ‘No, we don’t rent to Indians,’” said Kim Lévesque, a caseworker at Val-d’Or’s homeless shelter, La Piaule. “There is a lot of prejudice. It doesn’t mean there isn’t love and understanding too. There is. There are plenty of (non-Indigenous) people working towards the common good.

“But some people’s attitudes are frozen in time.”

Romeo Saganash represented Val-d’Or in Parliament for eight years and says he knows “every racist and every ally in town.”

“The tension of Val-d’Or is that it’s a place that derives its wealth off minerals that come from stolen land,” said Saganash. “It’s a lot easier to take things from people if you don’t consider them your equals. But things can change and there are allies on the ground, people trying to find solutions, people recognizing that things have been unfair for a long time.”

Kim Lévesque
Christopher Curtis

‘For their daughters and granddaughters’

With the nation’s media focused on the crisis in Val-d’Or, it wasn’t long before the women started feeling the weight of what they’d just done.

In the days following the Radio-Canada report, Quebec’s most widely circulated newspaper, the Journal de Montréal, published an article with the headline “Indigenous people scare me,” detailing the grievances some white people in Val-d’Or held against Indigenous folk. Another article in the same publication contained one of the women’s names alongside sections of her criminal record.

Popular Quebec City radio host Jeff Fillion said that what the women alleged was impossible because they are ugly and police are good-looking.

Within a few weeks, the throngs of outside reporters and television crews headed back south. It was as though Val-d’Or had become a distant memory, shorthand for some awful thing that was never resolved but was too painful to revisit.

Premier François Legault has repeatedly denied the Viens Commission’s central finding, that systemic racism acts as a barrier between Indigenous people and essential government services.

The women who came forward didn’t get to move on though. The crisis lives on in their thoughts and nightmares, in the way their heart beats faster when they see a police cruiser coming down the street, in the way their hands shake when they speak about it to this day.

After a year-long investigation by Montreal police, Crown prosecutors decided there wasn’t enough evidence to file criminal charges against the six officers.

Though the women’s allegations also led to the creation of the Viens Commission — a public inquiry that issued a scathing report detailing systemic racism against Indigenous people in all Quebec’s major public institutions — the province had already moved on.

There was a new provincial government in power, and with it came new priorities and new scandals to occupy the public imagination. Premier François Legault has repeatedly denied the Viens Commission’s central finding, that systemic racism acts as a barrier between Indigenous people and essential government services.

On the ground in Val-d’Or, not much changed for the women whose testimonies started it all.

For a time, Cynthia was one of the success stories. She had fought her way out of street life, gotten sober and found work as a custodian.

“She was beloved,” said Lévesque, who worked with Cynthia at the La Piaule homeless shelter. “She was funny, she was brave, she made me feel good. She was, as we say in French, un amour.”

Cynthia took her life on Nov. 10, 2017.

Édith Cloutier said she tried to remind Cynthia how much courage it took for her to step forward with the allegations.

“These women didn’t get the justice they sought,” said Cloutier, the director of Val-d’Or’s Native Friendship Centre. “But they weren’t doing it for themselves. They were doing it for their daughters and granddaughters. They were doing it so that other women would never have to be hurt like they were.”

Lumberyard in Amos, Quebec
Christopher Curtis

The police union’s private investigator

At least one of the witnesses in the Montreal police investigation of the officers said she felt intimidated after coming forward in the Radio-Canada broadcast.
In 2016, the SQ officers’ union — Association des Policiers Provinciaux de Québec (APPQ) — sued the public broadcaster for defamation.

Their lawyers hired a private investigator to question at least one of the women who spoke to Radio-Canada, according to legal documents obtained by Ricochet Media.

In a filing that contested APPQ’s lawsuit, Radio-Canada’s lawyer wrote that the police union’s investigator, Robert Demers, “presented himself as an officer or a former officer of the RCMP” during a September 2016 meeting with one of the women. Demers met with her twice. For the second interview, she brought a social worker along.

Demers asked the woman if Radio-Canada journalist Josée Dupuis or Val-d’Or’s Native Friendship Centre had paid her to testify on camera. He also wondered if she would help him track down the other women who had spoken out.

The police union’s investigator, Robert Demers, “presented himself as an officer or a former officer of the RCMP”

The woman later said she thought Demers was a police officer and that she was being targeted by a “criminal investigation” into her testimony. It was only after the one-hour interview, when the social worker asked to see Demers’ business card, that the two realized he was a private investigator.

This information comes from a sworn statement signed by Dupuis before a commissioner of oaths on Jan. 17, 2017. Six sources close to the police investigation into the SQ also confirmed it.

After the meeting, the social worker’s boss filed a complaint about the Demers incident with Fannie Lafontaine, the civilian auditor tasked with overseeing the Montreal police investigation.

In addition to the confusion over Demers’ credentials was another issue. The woman he interviewed was a witness in the investigation into the SQ officers whose union had hired the private investigator. And while the Val-d’Or portion of the investigation had just come to a close, it was still ongoing in other jurisdictions.

When reached for comment, Demers told Ricochet Media he had in fact been hired by the police union to conduct “an investigation.”

“As you know, I can’t comment further on a matter before the courts,” he said.

Dupuis, her lawyer and representatives from the Native Friendship Centre did not provide comment on the Demers meeting since it’s part of an ongoing legal dispute.

The APPQ said it is union policy not to speak on legal matters until they’re settled.

Kitcisakik, Quebec
Christopher Curtis

A warning ignored

Two years before Radio-Canada aired its shocking report from Val-d’Or, veteran SQ officer Jean Vicaire heard a disturbing story about his colleagues.

A First Nation chief told Vicaire that officers were picking up Indigenous women from the streets of Val-d’Or, driving them to a dirt road outside the city and beating them.

Vicaire is one of the few Indigenous officers on the force, and for 20 years he had made it his mission to build bridges between the SQ and First Nations.

So he did what he thought was the right thing; he informed his superior. The commander asked Vicaire if a specific officer was mentioned.

Vicaire was “stunned” by the senior officer’s reaction. That’s what he told the Viens Commission during his testimony on Aug. 24, 2018.

Dressed in a crisp police uniform with a clean-shaven face and a tightly cropped head of hair that day, Vicaire was the spitting image of a veteran officer. It clearly pained him to tell commissioners of the interaction with his superior.

He said that, at the time, he believed an investigation would be carried out. If it was, its findings were never made public.

The chief who tipped Vicaire off met with me in a café in Val-d’Or. They said that, over the course of two years, three women had come to them with similar complaints.

“They told me they were picked up by police at night and driven into the woods,” the chief said. “They said they remembered it was a dirt road outside the city, that they were badly beaten before being left by the side of the road.

“It was dark and they’d been drinking so it was hard for them to know who the officers were. One of them mentioned a female officer. … These women, they were too scared to go to the police. They didn’t know how to even make that kind of complaint.

“So they came to me.”

“They picked us up when it was dark, when we’d been drinking. They knew how to pick the perfect victim.”

SQ spokesperson Hugo Fournier points out that these claims were investigated by police but didn’t lead to criminal charges.

“Was it something that was done 40 years ago? I don’t know,” Fournier said. “But the (Montreal police) investigated and didn’t find anything. It’s illegal, it’s wrong, it’s something our officers learn about in their training. It is absolutely not part of our values or our practice.”

None of these allegations have been tested in court because of the lack of criminal charges. The Montreal police conducted a months-long investigation into the Val-d’Or claims as well as those in other communities where Indigenous people began coming forward with stories of abuse.

In all, they investigated 36 complaints against 32 police officers, but only two were indicted. Alain Juneau, a member of the SQ based on the Quebec-Labrador border, was charged with sexual assault for an incident stemming from the 1990s. Jean-Luc Vollant, who worked for an Innu police force, pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting a woman in the 1980s.

When news broke that none of the Val-d’Or police would be arrested, Lafontaine said the absence of criminal charges did not mean the victims’ testimony wasn’t credible. In 19 of the 32 complaints that wound up before detectives, there wasn’t enough evidence to identify the officer.

“A typical example was: a person says she was brought outside of town by a police officer and she doesn’t remember his face,” Lafontaine told me in 2016. “It happened years ago, it was dark, she was terrified in the back of a squad car and she can remember crucial details from that night but not the suspect’s face.

“Trauma has a lot to do with this.”

Last month in Val-d’Or, one of the victims told me that if they had been able to smell the officer or hear his voice, they could have identified him.

“Picking out his face from a pile of dozens of photos, that was like finding a needle in a stack of needles,” she said. “They picked us up when it was dark, when we’d been drinking. They knew how to pick the perfect victim.”

Adrienne Anichinapéo
Christopher Curtis

‘Unfinished business’

Édith Cloutier sat facing a window that overlooks 7th St. as dusk settled over the city.
“What’s something you wish people knew about the women who came forward five years ago?” I asked.

A long silence came over us.

The investigation, the testimony of the 12 women and all that it unleashed wouldn’t have been possible without the support of Cloutier and the Native Friendship Centre. The women who agreed to speak to Radio-Canada only did so knowing Cloutier and her team would be there along the way.

And when the media circus moved on, it was Cloutier who fought to keep the women safe. Two years after the report came out, Quebec’s public security minister awarded Cloutier the Prix de la Justice — an annual prize given out to someone who has fought for that elusive concept.

In a sense, it was the province’s version of a consolation prize. These women gave the justice system a chance and it failed them. But here was some token of recognition that things weren’t fair.

Cloutier didn’t feel comfortable accepting it. But she did. And after a gala in Quebec City, she brought the prize home and shared it with the women whose testimony shook a nation.

“Their story, individually and as a collective, is a reflection of the life that so many Indigenous women and girls live today.”

The friendship centre printed certificates for the women, certificates that came with a message thanking them for their courage and for the hope they would instill in future generations.

“This distinction is yours dear sister, who continues to stand up despite the storm that has swept through your life,” the certificates read. “The quest for justice of Aboriginal women is now resonating in the hearts of thousands of Quebecers.”
They handed the awards out at a luncheon in November 2017, a few weeks after Cynthia had died.

Finally, Cloutier broke her silence, leaning toward me.

“Their story, individually and as a collective, is a reflection of the life that so many Indigenous women and girls live today,” said Cloutier, who’s been at Val-d’Or’s Native Friendship Centre for nearly 32 years. “All of these women were mothers. All of these women — every single one — was either a residential school survivor or the descendant of a survivor.

“All of these women were exposed to addiction and violence as children, 100 per cent of these women saw youth protection workers roll up to their homes and most saw their children placed in foster care and all that comes with that.

“These women are living a sort of condensed heritage of what it means to be Indigenous in a country that’s trying to colonize you. They are a living reminder of the racism we face, the fact that, as Indigenous people in one of the richest countries on earth, they lived in third-world conditions.

“They live in poverty. Some have improved a part of their lives since 2015, others haven’t. One is dead. Others found sobriety but it is a fragile sobriety. And these women will always carry in themselves that feeling of having not been believed, of not being heard.

“Some still wonder if they did the right thing, coming out in the media. It was all they had left to escape that cycle of violence. They had no choice.

“We see them, we speak to them, some we don’t hear about for months at a time. But all along these years, we’ve always tried to remind them of that courage. They didn’t feel brave back then. They were desperate. But I want them to know they were brave and that they changed our world.”

No matter how you look at it, Cloutier is right.

Their stories sparked a conversation but they also led to a reform in policing in Val-d’Or. Officers who interact with the homeless now work alongside social workers and nurses. Across the street from the friendship centre, the SQ has a “mixed police station” where Indigenous officers and white cops patrol alongside each other.
These 12 women — many of whom had lived in the margins for a lifetime — forced the provincial government to come to the negotiating table, hat in hand, and listen to the inconvenient truths they’d ignored for so long.

It changed things.

“But we still have unfinished business,” Cloutier said. “Their struggle is ongoing and it is my struggle too. Because, like them, I am Anishnaabe. And we are in this fight together.”

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.