A judicial inquiry has concluded Indigenous people are the victims of systemic discrimination in Quebec – a finding that prompted Premier François Legault to abandon his long-standing contention that systemic racism does not exist in the province.
Retired Superior Court judge Jacques Viens delivered the report on Monday after an 18-month examination of Indigenous people’s interactions with matters that often fall under provincial jurisdiction, including police, corrections, the justice system, health, education, social services and youth protection.
Mr. Viens found discrimination in those services is widespread and institutionalized. “It seems impossible to deny the systemic discrimination experienced by First Nations and Inuit peoples in relation to the public services investigated,” he said. “The commission hearings have revealed that our current structures and processes show a clear lack of sensitivity toward the social, geographical and cultural realities of Indigenous peoples.”
The report was commissioned by the previous provincial government after allegations of police abuse against Indigenous people. It contains 142 recommendations, starting with an apology and formal recognition of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
The Quebec Premier – who has dismissed calls for more inquiries into systemic racism in the province, saying the phenomenon does not exist – conceded the term applies for Indigenous people.
“When it comes to Indigenous people in certain regions of northern Quebec, we have to accept there is systemic discrimination,” Mr. Legault said in an interview with Cogeco radio after the report was unveiled. “When you are Indigenous, you are not treated the same way as when you are not Indigenous. It’s not acceptable.”
He invited indigenous leaders to join him in Quebec City on Wednesday for a speech he will give to the National Assembly. He did not say if he will apologize, but he promised change.
The report also calls for improved housing, more exemptions from French-language requirements for those who deal with Indigenous people, improved access to translation, more Indigenous police officers and better legal-aid services. It suggests the province appoint a monitor to evaluate the implementation of the measures, and says the province would have to negotiate with Ottawa to act on some of them.
While many Indigenous leaders welcomed the broad condemnation, conclusions and recommendations, they also criticized the judge for dedicating little space to the allegations of police abuse that triggered the inquiry.
“We’ve got a bit of lassitude when it comes to apologies without concrete action," said Ghislain Picard, Chief of the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec-Labrador. "Let’s have some action and we can talk forgiveness later.”
Nearly three years ago, 21 women and seven men in Val-d’Or raised allegations of sexual violence, intimidation and “starlight” tours, in which police would drop them outside of town. Eight Sûreté du Québec officers were suspended, but none was charged with crimes and no further disciplinary action was taken, according to a report on Monday by CBC News. In many cases, the complainants could not identify their abusers, according to the prosecutors who dropped the cases.
In the report, the judge thanked the women for coming forward and recommended improvements to policing, but did not delve into abuse allegations.
The Quebec Native Women advocacy group welcomed the call to address shortcomings in provincial public services, but said it fell short on measures the group requested to protect Indigenous women from police. “It would be wrong to believe the commission has duly fulfilled its mandate with Indigenous women,” said Viviane Michel, president of the group. “It is only going to be harder to rebuild the confidence of Indigenous women in police or the justice system.”
Laurianne Petiquay of the Indigenous friendship centre in La Tuque, Que., said the SQ should apologize. “It’s not just in Val-d’Or. The inquiry heard this kind of abuse has taken place across the province,” she said.
Ms. Petiquay, whose friendship centre helps people negotiate many of the public services Mr. Viens described, said while abuse of Indigenous people is a chronic problem in the justice, penal and child-welfare systems, barriers to getting government services can be as simple as the cultural misunderstanding of a well-meaning bureaucrat. “There are constant errors in evaluating situations because we don’t understand each other,” she said. “It’s time to move from apologies to action and better access.”
Several Quebec cabinet ministers travelled to Val-d’Or for the report’s release, and promised to study it closely and take action. A meeting is scheduled for Oct. 17 to plan next steps with Indigenous leaders. Public Security Minister Geneviève Guilbault said the province is hiring Indigenous police officers at a rapid rate. “We can’t do everything at once, obviously,” she said. “But we will work on the process, the mechanisms and the follow-up for how to move forward, and how to move on the most pressing matters.”
Mr. Legault said predecessor governments also had a role the plight of Indigenous people in the province. In the opening of his report, Mr. Viens described “the scope of the disaster unleashed by the colonialist policies of successive provincial and federal governments over the past 150 years.”
In 2016, when Mr. Legault was in opposition, an evaluator found the Val-d’Or allegations were properly investigated, but also reported systemic racism in how the SQ deals with Indigenous women. Mr. Legault said he didn’t see the problem as systemic. “I don’t like the word ‘systemic.’ I don’t think there is a system, but of course, there is still a lot to do to fight against racism,” Mr. Legault told reporters at the National Assembly. He has often repeated since that he doesn’t believe in systemic discrimination, including racism.