Aboriginal women who stepped forward with allegations of police abuse in a northern Quebec mining town have forced the province to pull the Sûreté du Québec from the cases and suspend eight officers.
Public Security Minister Lise Thériault put Montreal city police investigators in charge Friday, reversing course 24 hours after standing by the provincial police. She said a program aired by Radio-Canada's investigative show Enquête Thursday night brought new facts to light. The program documented apparent police indifference along with heart-wrenching interviews with the women alleging officers abused their power and sexually and physically assaulted them.
Ms. Thériault broke down in tears Friday as she tried to defend the process that saw the SQ investigate allegations against its own members, but she admitted that public confidence in the system was damaged.
"I'm in shock, like all Quebeckers," she said. "It's time we do something – and that's what we are doing."
When Enquête journalists started their reporting last spring, they actually set out to investigate the 2014 disappearance of Sindy Ruperthouse, an aboriginal woman from Val-d'Or. Her family said there was little sign police took the disappearance seriously. Enquête wanted to test the diligence of police investigations in the context of calls for an inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women.
A reporting crew was at a table with more than a half-dozen of Ms. Ruperthouse's friends talking about her difficult life when the women started sharing stories of police abuse. Several women described incidents where officers would take them outside the city and leave them in the cold and dark to walk home and sober up.
"In the middle of winter, they pick us up and haul us out to the airport and dump us," Mani Decourcy said. Charlene Papatie described her sister being told to run into the woods in the middle of the night and having to walk home several kilometres. Often, sexual services were demanded before the women walked home.
Allegations of similar practices have dogged police forces in other parts of Canada. In British Columbia, a 2013 Human Rights Watch report accused the RCMP of similar abuses of women. In Saskatchewan, the dumping of native people outside Saskatoon led to criminal convictions of two police officers, the firing of two others and triggered a 2004 public inquiry.
The SQ held a news conference to defend its handling of the cases, saying officers in Montreal were in charge. Captain Guy Lapointe, an SQ spokesman, said some witnesses were unwilling to come forward and a lot of what investigators initially heard was little more than rumour. More women came forward after the reporters came to town, he said.
The province is setting up an independent office to investigate police conduct, but it's not yet up and running.
Representatives of the native community in Val-d'Or welcomed the suspensions and the decision to take the cases out of the hands of the SQ, but they also repeated calls for a national inquiry into missing and murdered women.
"A national emergency is taking place at our doorstep and we have to do something. Women are terrorized," said Edith Cloutier of the Val-d'Or Native Friendship Centre. She saluted the courage of the women who came forward in the Enquête report. "They have paved the way."
Chief David Kistabish of Abitibiwinni First Nation said he "was deeply disturbed and disgusted" by the women's stories aired Thursday. "As an Algonquin, I'm hurt. As Chief of the Abitibiwinni, I'm shocked," he said. "I can only salute these women's courage."
Johnny Wylde, Ms. Ruperthouse's father, said he hopes his daughter's disappearance will get a proper examination now.
He, too, called on prime-minister-designate Justin Trudeau to immediately call an inquiry. "Keep your promise," he said. "Don't wait."