Civilian oversight needed in Val d’Or investigation of Sûreté du Québec
Indigenous women from Val d’Or, Quebec, a small town located about 500km northwest of Montreal, alleged that officers from the Sûreté du Québec (SQ, Quebec’s provincial police) have committed serious crimes against them, including physical and sexual assault.
According to a report aired last week on the Radio Canada program Enquête, SQ officers are alleged to have “routinely picked up women who appeared to be intoxicated, drove them out of town and left them to walk home in the cold.” Some of the women interviewed by Radio Canada also allege that they were “physically assaulted or made to perform sex acts.”
These allegations are extremely serious. But although law enforcement and government officials have known about the allegations since May, it wasn’t until the Radio Canada report aired that the eight officers under investigation for sexual misconduct were put on leave or transferred to administrative duty.
And it wasn’t until last week that the investigation of the officers was transferred from the Sûreté du Québec to the Montreal Police.
The Government of Quebec did the right thing in taking the investigation out of the hands of the SQ. But as Amnesty International Canada (Francophone) stated in a press statement last week, this isn’t good enough. There is a “need for a truly independent investigation into these cases and all other cases of abuse by SQ officers.”
There needs to be civilian oversight of any investigation. And careful attention needs to be given to the bigger picture of how police treat Indigenous peoples in general and Indigenous women in particular.
The courage to report
Making the decision to file a complaint about sexual assault and abuse of power by an authority figure is an incredibly difficult thing to do. Filing multiple complaints of abuse of power and sexual assault with the police—with the same police force alleged to have carried out these acts—requires almost unimaginable courage. And then, to speak publicly about these allegations, to show their faces, to reveal their names—this is almost unheard of.
The women of Val d’Or who so bravely came forward and publicly reported serious allegations of police misconduct must receive justice, and they must receive ongoing support and protection—a challenge when the very people they have filed complaints against are the police who are supposed to protect them.
Some details of the allegations in Quebec mirror a well-documented pattern of police abuse in the city of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan that, even before it came to light publicly, was known among police officers as Starlight Tours.
In 2001, two Saskatoon police officers were convicted of “unlawful confinement” for picking up an Indigenous man named Darrel Night and dropping him off on the edge of town in sub-zero weather. Night was lucky to have survived the ordeal. When he came forward, his account focused public attention on a number of suspicious freezing deaths of other Indigenous men. This included two men who froze to death just days before Night was taken into custody and whose bodies were found near where Night had been dropped off, as well as the Cree teenager Neil Stonechild, who was found frozen to death in November 1990 after being taken into police custody.
Two public inquiries were later held, one into the death of Neil Stonechild—which found that the investigation of his death by Saskatoon police had been “superficial and totally inadequate”—and a broader inquiry into the treatment of Indigenous people by police and the justice system.
In 2013, a report by Human Rights Watch detailed allegations of sexual assault of Indigenous women, mishandling of missing persons files, and excessive use of force by the RCMP in northern British Columbia. That report triggered a two-year investigation by the civilian watchdog overseeing the RCMP in that province. This investigation, which looked into broader systemic concerns about police treatment of Indigenous peoples, rather than the specific allegations made in the Human Rights Watch report, has now been completed and will be released publicly once the RCMP has had the opportunity to respond.
The need for a comprehensive inquiry
In Quebec, a recently formed legislative committee will look at the issue of domestic and sexual violence against Indigenous women. But the committee will only study acts of violence against Indigenous women on reserve. Indigenous women are at risk of experiencing high rates of violence across Canada simply because they are Indigenous women—whether on or off reserve, whether the violence is perpetrated by a stranger, acquaintance, or an intimate partner, Indigenous women are at much higher risk of experiencing violence than other women in Canada.
Amnesty International Canada (Francophone) has called on the government of Quebec to “study the issue of violence against Indigenous women in Indigenous communities and urban environments and the committee must also deal with the issue of murdered Indigenous women missing in Quebec.”
The allegations made by the women from Val d’Or have once again focused attention on the issue of violence against Indigenous women. Prime Minister-elect Justin Trudeau has made a public commitment to a national public inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. This inquiry must be launched without delay. As the accounts from Val d’Or illustrate, such an inquiry must be comprehensive, focusing on the all the forms that violence against Indigenous women takes and the discrimination and marginalization that put Indigenous women at risk. The inquiry must be well-resourced. It must be independent. And it must be designed and guided by Indigenous women, family members of the missed and murdered, Indigenous communities, and leadership.
What you can do
Sign our online petition calling on Prime Minister-designate Trudeau to work with Indigenous women’s organizations to launch, as soon as possible, a national public inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, leading to a comprehensive and well-resourced national action plan on violence against women.