Quebec is launching a wide-reaching public inquiry into "systemic" discrimination facing indigenous peoples in the fallout from accusations of police mistreatment of native women in the northern community of Val-d'Or.
The made-in-Quebec probe marks an about-face by Premier Philippe Couillard, who had insisted he didn't want to duplicate the work of the federal government's national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women. Mr. Couillard now says he's received assurances from Ottawa that Quebec's inquiry will "complement" the federal commission and have a more targeted mandate. Both commissions will issue reports in late 2018.
The announcement in Quebec City – which included four cabinet ministers and two native leaders – comes a month after Quebec prosecutors announced they would not lay charges against any of the six provincial police officers who had been accused of sexual and other abuses against indigenous women in Val-d'Or.
Prosecutors said their decision did not mean that the abuses never happened, but that the Crown could not gather enough evidence to successfully prosecute a case.
Quebec's probe will extend beyond relations between indigenous people and police, taking aim at correctional, health, social and youth services over the past 15 years. While the commission will meet in Val-d'Or, a mining town 500 kilometres northwest of Montreal, it could travel to other native communities.
"The objective here isn't blame or vengeance. These are human sentiments we all know, but the human sentiment that has to dominate is the return to confidence and hope of more harmonious relations," Mr. Couillard said.
He said the commission headed by retired Superior Court Justice Jacques Viens will tackle "systemic" issues including racism. "I want to say this very openly. Quebec is not different from other societies," Mr. Couillard said. "So we have to look at this in a very calm way, very honestly."
Native leaders have been pressing Quebec to hold its own inquiry for more than a year, ever since native women told a Radio-Canada investigative show that they had been subjected to sexual violence and intimidation by provincial police. Eight officers with the Sûreté du Québec, the provincial police force, were suspended, although two returned, and Montreal police began an investigation. In all, 21 women and seven men filed complaints against police.
Native leaders said the failure to lay charges was evidence the justice system was failing Canada's First Nations.
Quebec's reversal on the public inquiry was cheered by native leaders Ghislain Picard, the Assembly of First Nations regional chief for Quebec and Labrador, and Matthew Coon Come, the grand chief of the Grand Council of the Crees, both of whom were present at the government announcement.
"We are now standing on the right side of history," Mr. Coon Come said. "This exercise is not about blame. It is about all of us – indigenous people, police officers and other stakeholders – working together to fix problems."
He said the provincial probe would look at issues "specific to Quebec." One area to examine was the "overreliance" on police officers acting as first responders, as well as inadequately trained officers.
The controversy over alleged police abuses has roiled Val-d'Or. Indigenous communities voiced disappointment over the failure to lay charges against the provincial police in Val-d'Or (though charges were laid against two retired officers in another region of Quebec). Meanwhile, some non-natives have turned out to demonstrate in support of the Val-d'Or officers; police deny the allegations and 41 officers are suing Radio-Canada for $2.3-million in damages.
The union representing the officers raised objections to a provincial probe earlier in the week but declined to comment on Wednesday. The Association des policières et policiers du Québec said it would respond on Thursday.