The city of Montreal will adopt a series of reforms in its police department and municipal court system and in the way it offers services to Indigenous people, in hopes of correcting years of systemic racism.

Mayor Valérie Plante will sign off on the newly unveiled reconciliation strategy today, putting in place a five-year plan to enact these changes.

“Our metric for success is pretty simple. In five years, will the lives of Indigenous people in Montreal be markedly better?” said the city’s reconciliation commissioner, Marie-Ève Bordeleau, who co-authored the strategy. “The answer needs to be yes.”

One of the most pressing needs, Bordeleau says, is to rebuild trust between the police department and the 35,000 Indigenous people who live in Montreal. The strategy calls for police to expand a pilot program that creates a mixed patrol unit, pairing officers with Inuit social workers.

‘Acknowledging the depth of the problem’

At Dorval’s Station 5, the police work alongside the Ullivik health centre to make sure Inuit staying in Montreal for medical care don’t wind up sleeping on the streets or getting arrested for minor infractions. Officers also receive sensitivity training and routinely drop by Ullivik to build a relationship with the community.

“That program is going to be expanded to the downtown police stations,” said Bordeleau. “A big part of this plan has been acknowledging the systemic racism in place, acknowledging the depth of the problem and taking concrete steps to eliminate it.”

In adopting a strategy that draws on recommendations from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Montreal joins cities like Vancouver, Toronto and Winnipeg. Bordeleau was appointed the city’s first-ever reconciliation commissioner in 2018, and the 61-page strategy she has now presented to the mayor is the culmination of her two and a half years on the job.

“I’m emotional just thinking about it,” said Bordeleau, a Cree lawyer who grew up in an Abitibi town where segregation was an unspoken reality of life. “Racism is a heavy thing to carry, it’s something I’ve experienced, my dad’s experienced and my aunts have too. But it’s also a burden for non-Indigenous people as well. We need to be able to move past this.

“I was talking to him [my father] about this the other day and he told me, ‘You, my child, are a warrior.’ I’m fighting back tears.”

A culture of distrust

Indigenous women in Montreal are 11 times more likely to be stopped by police than white women are, according to a 2019 study published by the police department. Experts say this fosters a culture of distrust that makes it less likely for these women to call 911 if they’ve been physically or sexually assaulted.

David Chapman, who runs the Resilience Montreal shelter, has worked with homeless Indigenous women for years. He says that on the rare occasion when a sexual assault complaint is filed, it can take hours for police to show up and open an investigation. In a particularly bad period last year, Chapman recalls about 20 cases of sexual assault being reported to police, with only one of them ending in an arrest.

“It’s an everyday crisis out here,” said Chapman. “There are good officers but the system, as a whole, needs to change.”

Often, this reluctance to call police makes it easier for Indigenous women to disappear without the authorities taking notice. That’s why the city has announced it will set up a 1-800 number where people can report a missing Indigenous woman without talking to police.

The hotline was created in collaboration with the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal, whose director, Nakuset, has worked closely with Bordeleau on the reconciliation strategy since the project began in 2018.

Indigenous overrepresentation in homeless population

Another key element of the strategy will be fighting homelessness among Indigenous people. Though they make up less than one per cent of Montreal’s population, roughly one in 10 of the city’s homeless is Indigenous.

Last year Bordeleau and Nakuset worked closely together to open the Resilience Montreal shelter west of downtown. The shelter was established after more than a dozen Indigenous people died in the tight-knit homeless community that congregates around Cabot Square on Atwater Ave.

Death still stalks the neighbourhood. Three Indigenous women who frequented the shelter have died since September — one of heart failure and the other two by overdose, according to their friends. But, in past interviews with Ricochet, Nakuset has said the presence of Bordeleau at city hall makes her feel she has an almost direct line to the mayor.

“Marie-Ève is the best, you can tell she cares, she gives it her all,” said Nakuset. “We might have our problems with the city but [Bordeleau] is an ally in a position of power and she works every day to try to change things. You can’t put a price on that.”

Another problem the homeless face is the frequency with which they’re given tickets by police for minor bylaw infractions like loitering, sleeping in a metro station or public intoxication. The strategy will maintain a municipal court program that ensures homeless Indigenous folk aren’t saddled with thousands of dollars in unpaid fines that keep them locked into the system.

“The idea is to find alternative solutions like community service,” said Bordeleau. “We don’t want people in jail or stuck in the courts because of a ticket.”

Seven principles of reconciliation

The reconciliation strategy focuses on seven principles:

  • building a government-to-government relationship with neighbouring Indigenous communities like Kahnawake and Kanesatake, but also northern fly-in villages in Inuit and Cree territory;
  • increasing the visibility of Montreal’s Indigenous roots;
  • making the city safer for Indigenous people;
  • supporting Montreal’s urban Indigenous community;
  • supporting cultural events that hire Indigenous artists;
  • using public funds to help Indigenous people access economic opportunities; and
  • protecting Montreal’s environment using the seven generations principle.

Some reforms are already in place. Changing the name of Amherst St. — named after a British general who infamously committed war crimes against Indigenous people — to the Mohawk word “Atateken” — which means friendship — was part of the strategy enacted last year.

Other place names in Montreal will change to honour the city’s Indigenous population. A new community centre and library near Atwater Ave. will bear an Inuit name and serve as a welcoming place for the Inuit who congregate in Cabot Square, Bordeleau said.

There are also sensitivity training programs in place for city employees, and though they are optional, Bordeleau says about 1,000 workers have taken the time to do the course and learn about their Indigenous neighbours.

Many of the broader changes needed, whether it’s resources for the homeless or social housing adapted to the cultural realities of being Indigenous, will require funding from the governments of Quebec and Canada. But Bordeleau remains optimistic that the reconciliation strategy will make an impact.

“I’m quite nervous, this is almost three years of my life. I’ve spent my career trying to make a difference and I want this to be a success,” said Bordeleau. “I must say I’m also hopeful, I’m also inspired by the actions of ordinary people who want to learn more about Indigenous people or who volunteer to help Indigenous homeless people.

“Reconciliation isn’t just about Indigenous people, it’s about all of us working together and healing together.”