CBC News has learned that more than half of all allegations of police misconduct brought to Quebec’s Bureau of Independent Investigations (BEI) are from Indigenous complainants.
Since the BEI, Quebec’s independent police investigation agency, got off the ground in June 2016, 27 Indigenous people have alleged police wrongdoing — a disproportionate number, given that First Nations and Inuit people make up just two per cent of Quebec’s population.
The BEI confirms it has so far transferred a half dozen of those complaints to Quebec’s Director of Criminal and Penal Prosecutions for analysis.
None of the allegations has led to charges.
‘Culture of impunity’
Indigenous leaders in Quebec have not yet commented on these latest figures, however, Quebec Native Women president Viviane Michel recently called out Quebec’s system of police oversight, saying it must be radically improved.
“Violence against Indigenous women constitutes a national emergency,” said Michel on the last day of hearings of the Viens Commission, the inquiry called in response to explosive allegations of police misconduct in Val-d’Or in 2015.
Michel pointed to the lack of disciplinary hearings or criminal charges in all but two of 92 complaints against police which the Montreal police service (SPVM) was called in to investigate in the wake of the Val-d’Or scandal.
(In the case of the two complaints that led to criminal charges, both officers have since died.)
“These cases show the systems currently in place to protect the public do not work when it comes to Indigenous women,” said Michel.
Taken altogether, the complaints officially investigated by the BEI and the SPVM add up to 117 allegations against police brought by Indigenous people that have had no outcome to date — proof of “a culture of impunity,” in the words of Melissa Saganash, the director of Cree-Quebec relations for the Grand Council of the Crees.
In her final submission to the Viens commission, Saganash described what she called “a ‘law of silence, or ‘omerta,’ among police officers that prevented effective internal discipline and sanction.”
The government’s response
Quebec’s Public Security Ministry has already taken some steps to improve how the government responds to Indigenous people’s complaints about policing.
In April 2016, it announced it was financing a hotline for complaints and expanded the SPVM’s investigation of the Val-d’Or allegations to include alleged incidents across Quebec, involving all police forces.
Since September 2018, if an Indigenous person complains about police mistreatment, that complaint must be transferred to the BEI.
The failure of a police force to transfer a case immediately is subject to a fine ranging from $500 to $10,000 under Article 311 of the Police Act.
Indigenous complainants are also encouraged to contact the BEI directly.
Despite those improvements, Michel said there are still shortcomings.
She said the BEI suffers from a “serious lack of representation,” since none of its 34 investigators is Indigenous.
Michel said there are plenty of retired First Nations officers who could serve in that role, who understand what life is like on a reserve and grasp the historic lack of trust between police and Indigenous people.
Indigenous complainants do have the option of turning to Quebec’s police ethics commissioner, which can lead to a disciplinary hearing against an officer accused of misconduct.
However, Michel said that step, too, poses obstacles for many First Nations and Inuit people.
Complaints must be made in writing, which is a problem for people whose mother tongue is neither French nor English.
A complaint must be lodged within a year of an alleged incident.
The police ethics commissioner always proposes mediation first, which frightens away many complainants.
“In the case of an Aboriginal victim, conciliation is not adapted to their situation, where there is an imbalance of power,” Michel said.
Overall, Indigenous complainants are left feeling the process is stacked against them, she said.
Ethics commissioner ‘open to change’
Quebec Police Ethics Commissioner Marc-André Dowd told CBC in a recent interview that he’s open to the idea of hiring more Indigenous staff.
“But we are a small team — just 29 people,” Dowd said. “We don’t often have the chance to hire new people.”
Under the Police Code of Ethics, the BEI must inform complainants in writing about their right to contact the police ethics commissioner and to send the commissioner a copy, so there is a paper trail of the complaint.
That hasn’t happened, Dowd said.
Presented with CBC’s findings of the sheer volume of complaints brought to the BEI by Indigenous people, Dowd said he will ask the BEI to retroactively send him a copy of all those complaints, to guarantee the complainants have been informed of their rights.
BEI head Madeleine Giauque declined to be interviewed to respond to criticism of the organization.
However, last October, the BEI did hire an Indigenous liaison officer, Bérénice Mollen-Dupuis, an Innu from Ekuanitshit on Quebec’s Lower North Shore.
In an interview with CBC, Mollen-Dupuis said she’s witnessed how some police treat some people differently — asking them for identification for no apparent reason, for example.
“Sometimes they’re more targeted because they’re Indigenous. Now I’m talking about Montreal, but also in Val-d’Or and Sept-Iles,” said Mollen-Dupuis.
Mollen-Dupuis, who has 15 years’ experience in various First Nations organizations, said she’ll be in charge of training investigators about “Indigenous reality” and reaching out to First Nations and Inuit communities.
“I really hope, I think that I can do a good job on that,” she said. “For sure, it’s something new: I have to build it from the beginning.”
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United States: Alaska reckons with missing data on murdered Indigenous women, Alaska Public Media