The aboriginal women spoke of sexual violence and intimidation by police, and "starlight tours" in which officers drove them out of town and let them walk home to sober up. On Friday, a year after their explosive allegations shook Quebec, the women learned why none of the officers would face criminal charges.
They reacted with a chorus of disappointment and cries of loss of faith in Canadian justice.
"We feel anger. We feel injustice," said Viviane Michel, president of Quebec Native Women Inc. "The message we're left with is that justice simply doesn't apply to us."
Quebec prosecutors took the unusual step on Friday of publicly explaining their decision not to file charges against provincial police in Val-d'Or. The mining town 500 kilometres northwest of Montreal was hit by widespread allegations of police abuse in a controversy that exemplified the tense relations between Canada's First Nations and police.
The women's stories came to light after an investigative report on Radio-Canada that went on to win a Michener Award. The judging panel noted that "for the first time, these vulnerable and marginalized women overcame fear of retribution and spoke out."
In the aftermath, eight officers with the Sûreté du Québec were suspended, although two have since returned, and Montreal police detectives began to investigate the allegations. In all, 21 women and seven men filed complaints against police in Val-d'Or, mostly for sexual assault and excessive use of force; they targeted 28 officers who still work for the force.
Prosecutors concluded they could not gather sufficient evidence to successfully prosecute a single criminal case in Val-d'Or. There were 38 files examined; in 19 of them, complainants were unable to identify a suspect.
"We didn't choose the version of the police officers over the version of the complainants," said Nadine Haviernick, one of the three prosecutors who studied the cases. "The fact that no criminal charges are being laid in some cases doesn't necessarily mean the alleged events didn't happen," she said. "Rather, it means that the evidence we have won't let us file criminal charges" that could be proved in court.
Yet, the results announced Friday fed into lingering grievances by aboriginal communities in Quebec and across Canada, where police forces are coming under growing scrutiny for "systemic racism." Some of the women who stepped forward in Val-d'Or say they now fear reprisals.
"We feel betrayed, humiliated and our heart is broken in pieces," twelve of the women who were behind the allegations said in a letter made public this week. "It is as if in this country's justice system, we were not important, we were left behind and we have not been heard."
Perry Bellegarde, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said he supports calls for an independent investigation.
"This is another reminder that the justice system is failing First Nations and it reinforces our call for a First Nations justice system – right from policing, to courts, to the recognition of indigenous law and restorative justice," he said in a statement.
The Radio-Canada team had gone to Val-d'Or to look into the disappearance of Sindy Ruperthouse, a 44-year-old Algonquin woman who went missing in 2014. In speaking to her friends, the journalists uncovered the allegations of abuse.
Now, Ms. Ruperthouse's father said, "it's like the women are being treated as liars."
"Everything started with Sindy. It cannot stop here," Johnny Wylde said on Friday. "These women cannot give up, and we will continue to search for my daughter. My family supports all the native women of Val-d'Or, our prayers are with them."
While prosecutors did not file charges against police in Val-d'Or, they have arrested two other officers, both retired, on sexual assault-related charges dating to the 1980s and 1990s in another region of Quebec. The officers are Alain Juneau of the provincial police and Jean-Luc Vollant, who worked for a First Nations force.
With the criminal route now exhausted in Val-d'Or, native leaders are focusing on a Quebec-based inquiry. The national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women is looking into institutional bias that includes police forces, but Quebec leaders are pressuring the province to hold its own probe.
Ghislain Picard, the Assembly of First Nations regional chief for Quebec and Labrador, said Quebec has its own "specific context" when it comes to aboriginal issues. "Quebec isn't Saskatchewan. It isn't the Yukon," he said. He fears the outcome of the criminal investigation could discourage aboriginal women from speaking up. "This won't lessen the animosity between police forces and our communities, it will add to it."
The independent observer named by Quebec to oversee the police investigation in Val-d'Or dispelled criticism that the case was tainted because one police force was investigating another. Fannie Lafontaine, a human-rights lawyer at Laval University, said Montreal police acted in a fair and "impartial" way.
"There is always going to be suspicions when police investigate police," she said. However, "the investigation met the highest standards."
Prof. Lafontaine, Canada Research Chair on International Criminal Justice and Human Rights, said she believes that criminal prosecution should not be the final avenue for seeking justice. Criminal cases set a "very high" bar for evidence, and the issue of mistrust between natives and police extends beyond the scope of a trial, she said.
"A criminal investigation has a very limited objective: It has to find a crime, a victim, and a guilty party," said Prof. Lafontaine. "We need to shed a light on the underlying causes of the social crisis, so that there is collective justice in Val-d'Or."
In a statement released Friday afternoon, the Sûreté du Québec said it will co-operate with the federal inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women and also look into the possibility of taking disciplinary measures against police officers.