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Anger and hope in Val-d’Or

Quebec is embarking on a landmark inquest into how government institutions treat Indigenous people following a police scandal

Anger and hope in Val-d’Or

The walls of Edith Cloutier’s office are covered in certificates and awards, tokens of the decades she’s spent supporting and empowering Indigenous people in a small mining city in the northern reaches of Quebec. On a shelf beside her sits a thick folder of documents labelled: Val-d’Or Crisis 2015.

The ink and paper belies the human stories Cloutier, as the director of the local Native Friendship Centre, knows all too well.

In 2015, Val-d’Or became the backdrop to one of Quebec’s biggest police scandals, as allegations emerged that provincial officers had been physically and sexually abusing Indigenous women.

“They wanted this to stop so that their daughters and granddaughters didn’t have to live what they’ve been through in terms of abuse and injustice.”

The claims uncovered by Radio-Canada were sordid: One woman said officers gave her $100 for sex and another $100 to keep her mouth shut. Others said they were brought into the woods and forced to give policemen oral sex, or left to walk home in the cold.

As people took to the streets to protest against the alleged actions, the number of similar complaints ballooned to nearly 40 cases across the province. The accusations spoke to a disturbing pattern of racism and launched a broader discussion about the various forms of discrimination experienced by the province’s Indigenous peoples.

“The women understood that something wasn’t working,” Cloutier says of the groundswell of rage that came into view. “That they wanted this to stop so that their daughters and granddaughters didn’t have to live what they’ve been through in terms of abuse and injustice.”

Yet after a year-long investigation, Quebec’s director of criminal prosecutions announced that no one from Val-d’Or would be prosecuted. Of the other allegations, only two former police officers from Schefferville — a village located 1,000 km away — would be charged with sexual assault.

Those who got off the hook were not necessarily innocent, the prosecutors specified; there was simply not enough evidence to proceed.

It wasn’t until December 2016, after a myriad of protests and a massive petition, that the premier announced a province-wide inquest into the relationship between Indigenous people and government institutions. That inquiry, named “Listening, Reconciliation and Progress” by the province, is set to begin gathering testimonies this summer.

Though the inquiry feels very much like vindication for the community, there is cautious hope, mixed in with palpable apprehension and lingering anger that most Canadians still don’t get what has gone wrong.

VICE News returned to Val-d’Or to speak to the people fighting for change.

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A blue-collar city with a total population of nearly 32,000, Val-d’Or was named after the rich gold deposits on which it rests. The 2015 scandal, which now dominates the proud mining community’s media presence and online search results, is considered an unwelcome blemish on the area’s reputation.

Cloutier says that after the allegations surfaced, racial tensions began to rise. “It was really polarizing, you could feel the Indigenous and non-Indigenous movements clashing,” she says. “Indigenous people stopped going out, didn’t go downtown anymore. It was really a collective shock.”

Though many mobilized in solidarity with the women, crowds also gathered in support of police, with certain residents decrying the fact that an entire profession was being put through the wringer for what they deemed either unproven claims or the actions of a few bad apples.

“Indigenous people stopped going out, didn’t go downtown anymore.”

While the Sûreté du Québec, the provincial police force, temporarily suspended the officers identified in the allegations, some officers eventually went public to plead their innocence. The force is now suing Radio-Canada for defamation over their reporting on the story, to the tune of $2.3 million. It’s a move the Quebec Federation of Professional Journalists has criticized as a means to silence journalists.

In a way, the women have also been silenced by the public pressure and intense scrutiny surrounding the case. The Crown’s inability to see the allegations through was like a slap in the face to those who came forward, Cloutier says. In a statement they released after the director of criminal prosecution’s announcement, the complainants conveyed their reactions: Humiliation, betrayal, pain.

Cloutier explains that many of these women still struggle with substance abuse and are now in various stages of treatment. Still reeling from the aftershock, they are currently being sheltered from the media by support workers.

This situation makes the end result of their ordeal paradoxical: If the whistleblowers who triggered the government’s investigation have been frightened into silence, how will Quebec convince more people to open up about the injustices they experience?

Respectful listening and cultural curiosity, Cloutier stresses, is an imperative part of the healing process. What non-Indigenous people need to understand, she explains, is the complicated context that allowed this scandal to take shape.

The Val-d'Or Native Friendship Centre's Executive Director, Edith Cloutier

Sitting in a Lebanese restaurant in the small town of Amos, an hour outside of Val-d’Or, Françoise Ruperthouse talks about how her siblings went missing when she was a child. She speaks in a tone that suggests equal parts regret and resolve.

“My mother didn’t speak French when we were young, and two of her children disappeared from the Amos hospital,” she shares. “In a way they were stolen, because they just didn’t tell my [Algonquian-speaking] parents that they had transferred them to other hospitals.” As a result, she says, her family was torn apart.

A member of the Abitibiwinni First Nation from the community of Pikogan, Ruperthouse overcame residential school and substance abuse issues and is now a band councillor and a spokesperson for Quebec Native Women.

During the Val-d’Or scandal, she was a prominent voice in efforts to push the then-reluctant Quebec government to launch an inquest.

“It’s like they’re telling us, go back to the streets, go back and get raped.”

Her anger over the matter became a symbol of the rage felt by the province’s Indigenous women, and part of the groundswell that led to the government’s surprising about-face.

“It’s like they’re telling us, go back to the streets, go back and get raped,” she told reporters that day in November when prosecutors stepped away from the Val-d’Or cases without pressing charges. Her voice shook with outrage. “Someone help me please, this makes no sense.”

For Ruperthouse, the inquest is a bittersweet success: The Val-d’Or scandal was triggered by the disappearance of her cousin, 44-year-old Sindy, who still hasn’t been found. In 2015, Radio-Canada began to investigate Sindy’s case, digging into what seemed like incomplete police work on the year-old file.

But their interviews with possible witnesses took an unexpected turn, revealing stories of police abuse dating back decades.

Ruperthouse believes the women kept quiet for so long because many Indigenous people have been taught not to discuss abuse. In fact, every single one of the women involved in the Val-d’Or crisis has a backstory that stems back to the residential school system, where Indigenous children were systematically stripped of their identity and “Christianized.”

“I saw my children using, my father died, my baby ended up in hospital…”

Across Canada, roughly 150,000 children attended residentials schools, which operated for more than a century and only fully shuttered in the 1990s. The curriculum often featured religious education and forced labour programs meant to “take the indian out of the child,” and survivors’ accounts paint a horrifying picture of physical, sexual, and psychological violence.

Research shows the residential school’s legacy of abuse and severed family ties has led to intergenerational trauma, often manifested through high rates of substance abuse, suicide and homelessness.

“I spent a year there, but I was an enfant terrible, I made a lot of noise, spoke out a lot and defended myself,” recalls Ruperthouse. “They didn’t want to keep me around, I was too stubborn.”

A cheerful, boisterous woman, Ruperthouse says her strong character helped her overcome a life of adversity. “I saw my children using, my father died, my baby ended up in hospital…” she trails off. Not everyone in her family was so lucky, she says, and many of her loved ones still wrestle with addiction.

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Some of the context behind the Val-d’Or crisis can be traced to Lac-Simon, a tight-knit Algonquin village just 30 minutes outside of the city. The community has lived through multiple tragedies over the past decade: Most recently, in 2016, 22-year-old resident Anthony Raymond Papatie murdered police officer Thierry LeRoux before turning the gun on himself.

It’s a sad reputation that Lac-Simon’s 1,500 residents are desperately trying to shake. But this community is where most of the women involved in the Val-d’Or events originally came from, and as such the scandal has further complicated an already tense relationship between the town and police.

Lac-Simon Chief Adrienne Jérôme was elected during the crisis. Soon after her win, new allegations emerged that the Sûreté du Québec had dropped off an intoxicated First Nations youth kilometres outside of the community and left him to walk home in the cold.

“For a long time, we weren’t allowed to do these things, they were considered demonic.”

The practise, a virulent form of police abuse that has long been alleged across Canada, is commonly known as the “starlight tour.”

In the midst of the turmoil, Jérôme told media that tensions were so high she feared the anger might turn into violence and that another officer could die.

I first meet Jérôme in a traditional lodge a local family has built in their backyard. The beautiful circular structure, made of logs and tarp and filled with fragrant pine, has become a gathering spot for many Lac-Simon children — and adults — who wish to learn or relearn traditional practices like preparing hare and brewing medicine out of cedar foliage. “For a long time, we weren’t allowed to do these things, they were considered demonic,” Jérôme deplores.

While repairing ties with police will be an important part of the community’s recovery, Jérôme says rebuilding cultural pride is paramount to the healing process. She describes how her constituents — especially youth — are rediscovering the Algonquian traditions that were forbidden during the residential school era. “We’re working with elders to gather as much knowledge as possible, we’re returning to traditions, to our roots, our spirits.”

Jérôme recalls an instance where two Sûreté du Québec officers stopped by one of the backyard lodges, “to see what it was about.” She praises that curiosity as a necessary step to reconciliation.

But there are still structural difficulties: In February, the Sûreté du Québec pulled its staff from the village, and the Lac-Simon band council is now negotiating with both levels of government to bolster its own Indigenous police force, which it says is chronically underfunded.

With a total population of nearly 32,000, Val-d’Or was named after the rich gold deposits on which it rests.

Beyond issues with policing, Quebec’s inquest will also dig into how the province’s justice system, social services, child protection agencies and health care system treat Indigenous populations.

The investigation will be headquartered in Val-d’Or, a move some fear will place its proceedings outside the media’s spotlight.

Cloutier is not of that mind. “If this work is set up in Val-d’Or, it’s because Val-d’Or is ground zero,” Cloutier declares. “If these women were able to speak out it’s because we’re like a laboratory, we’ve created a fertile territory for the Indigenous community.”

Though her optimism is couched in a healthy layer of caution, Cloutier believes that the inquiry could play an important role in fixing her community’s issues and furthering the healing process.

“To me that was a statement, like ‘there is a problem, and we have to work with Indigenous people to fix it.’”

That is, if it’s done properly. The most important consideration, she says, is the hiring of Indigenous staff. Cloutier hopes Aboriginal people will be especially well-represented among the front-line staff tasked with gathering personal stories. “We’ll have to keep in mind all these cultural considerations and different backgrounds in order to encourage participation and testimonies.”

But for the communities who had been lobbying for it, the mere existence of this investigation is an acknowledgment that mistakes were made.

“Widening the mandate to consider the need for a systemic transformation of social and public services is recognizing that there is a problem,” Cloutier says. “To me that was a statement, like ‘there is a problem, and we have to work with indigenous people to fix it.’”

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