In October 2015 the french Radio-Canada investigative television program, Enquête, uncovered stories of sexual violence toward aboriginal women in the Quebec mining town of Val d’Or, about 500 kilometres northwest of Montreal.
The alleged victims spoke of a pattern involving the Quebec provincial police, the Surete du Quebec over a period of at least two decades.
The woman told of how officers routinely picked up women who appeared to be intoxicated, drove them out of town and left them to walk home in the cold. Some alleged they were physically assaulted or made to perform sex acts.
Bianca Moushoun recounted how male officers would give her beer they kept stored in the trunk of their vehicles. She said the men would later take her to a remote area.
“We went to a road in the woods, and that’s where they would ask me to perform fellatio,” said Moushoun. They paid her “$100 for the service” and “$100 to keep quiet. Sometimes they paid me in coke. Sometimes they paid me in cash, sometimes both.”
Another woman, speaking anonymously, said she was assaulted by an officer in his car on the road between Val-d’Or and Waswanipi, a Cree community about 275 kilometres northeast of Val-d’Or.
“He wanted a blow job. I said no,” she wrote. “He threw me out and grabbed my hair. He left me alone on the highway.”
In the wake of the Enquête report and allegations, formal complaints were launched, and an internal police investigation by the Surete du Quebec was confirmed.
“Fourteen files have been opened for allegations related to the behaviour of our officers,” said Surete du Quebec spokeswoman Martine Asselin. “These are allegations, not charges for now.”
Carole Marcil, a bartender at Le Manoir in Val-d’Or, had heard such stories from aboriginal women many times.
“If they don’t perform fellatio … they get massacred, they show up here with bumps, bruises, punches and burns.”
But “not all” SQ officers in Val-d’Or act that way.
“There are two or three or four bad apples [among them],” Marcil said. That’s it.
Quebec’s indigenous leaders convene, then demand an immediate sit-down meeting with premier Phillipe Couillard.
“We’re giving (Couillard) 24 hours to meet with us and even that is being generous,” said Ghislain Picard, the Quebec regional chief for the Assembly of First Nations, “It is a firm limit and when it expires, we will act.”
Quebec’s Cree communities also announce a boycott of businesses in Val-d’Or and say they will no longer hold their annual hockey tournament in the city. The tournament brings Cree families from across the province to Val-d’Or and injects an estimated $4 million into the local economy.
Though the SQ was aware of the allegations brought forth by Radio Canada for at least five months, some of the officers in question were only pulled from active duty after the Enquete broadcast.
Quebec’s Public Security minister, Lisa Theriault (Theriault?) announces eight SQ officers will be placed on administrative leave pending the results of an investigation, originally to be conducted by the Montreal police.
Later the Quebec government backtracks and says the investigation will be overseen by a civilian observer to ensure its findings are objective.
“There is no trust between our community and the SQ, it’s broken,” says Chief Picard. “Contrary to what many are saying, this is a crisis.”
On the other side, Surete du Quebec officers felt equally offended, and thought there had been a rush to judgement. Public Security minister Lisa Theriault appeared at a news conference in tears, which seemed a bit much, a bit over the top given she apparently knew of the allegations for months. Some of the officers circulated a petition demanding that the Public Security minister apologize to them for apparently siding with the indigenous women.
In an act of solidarity with the suspension of the eight officers, a number of local SQ police refused to show up to work and reinforcements had to be called in from neighbouring communities.
The president of the Quebec provincial police union Pierre Veilleux came to the defense of the eight officers., stating that the crisis sheds light on social problems in Aboriginal communities “who live in great difficulty across the country,” and that “it would be unfortunate if these officers become scapegoats for problems that overshadow their responsibilities.”
In November 2015 Premier Philippe Couillard announces the appointment of Fannie Lafontaine, to oversee the police investigation into the Val-d’Or scandal. Lafontaine is a civilian auditor, lawyer, professor, author and human rights expert, but not the first choice of First Nations chiefs who feel they should have been part of Couillard’s decision making process.
The Couillard government then quickly announces it will provide $6.1 million to improve services to native communities in the Abitibi region.
In the Spring of 2016 more Aboriginal women come forward with similar allegations of abuse involving Sûreté du Québec officers in communities across the province. By now, two of the original eight officers charged with abuse are cleared of wrongdoing, but police won’t say how many women have reported abuse. The new allegations of rape, physical abuse and starlight tours come from women in Maniwaki, Sept-Îles and Schefferville, adding their voices to those in the original report.
While the Lafontaine / SPVM investigation drags on many doubt the police investigation will get very far.
“My first reaction was that they’ll all make sure that this’ll get smothered, it won’t go any further,” says retired SQ officer Jean O’Bomsawin.
A former Ministry of Public Security worker, Isabelle Parent says charges are rare in cases where a police force investigates another.
“Many times, when it gets to the level of the prosecutors, they’ll say they don’t have all the information needed to bring it to court,” Parent said. “So, in the end, there are many levels where it can get dropped so it doesn’t get followed through.”
In the Fall of 2016 the Montreal Police turn over 37 files of documented abuse against Aboriginal women in Val d’Or to prosecutors for review, but Quebec’s director of criminal prosecutions (DPCP) refuses to lay charges in connection with any of the 37 files setting off a wave of criticism from activists and Indigenous leaders.
In a statement, the victims describe feeling “betrayed, humiliated” and expressed “fear of the return of the suspended police officers, fear of reprisals, fear for our own security.” One of the victims, Joyce Thomas comments, “It’s like encouraging the police to continue to do things.”
Fannie Lafontaine, the civilian auditor who was tasked with observing the investigation as it was carried out by Montreal police, releases her report calling it a “fair and impartial” process.
By now members of the Sûreté du Québec are suing Radio-Canada for airing the Enquete report calling it “biased, misleading… inaccurate, incomplete and untrue,” further stating that it created a hostile working environment for officers in Val-d’Or.
In December 2016 the Quebec government proposes a full blown public inquiry into police relations in Val-d’Or, Quebec.
The news comes after members of the the federal inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls says its two-year mandate isn’t long enough to delve into the questions of Val-d’Or.
The Quebec government states that the commission won’t repeat the criminal investigation into police officers.Instead, it will focus on systemic racism and its causes.
And while commendable, here we see how we are getting further and further from the origins of the story: that SQ officers abused aboriginal women.
Even still, writing about the Oka crisis in 1990, Hubert Bauch said it eloquently, “The Surete du Quebec had compiled a bulging record of operational blunders and gratuitous violence from the demonstrations and the FLQ activities of the late 60s and early 70s, to a series of excessive interventions in this decade in native communities like Les Escoumins, Maliotenam, and Restigouche.” Given their track record of excessive First Nation interventions, it’s not much of a stretch to see that systemic racism against Aboriginal woman would have been a factor in Surete du Quebec Starlight Tours and abuse.
In 2017 the Viens Commission is launched, named after retired Quebec Superior Court Justice Jacques Viens who leads the inquiry. There are the typical interviews and community meetings that go along with these affairs. In 2017, the commission visits every Algonquin nation and two of the three Mohawk communities. In total there are 13 weeks of public audiences in Val d’Or and 81 community visits, with 62 of them public information sessions. The work continues into 2018 with the process due to wrap up on November 30th of that year.
Throughout the Viens process Surete du Quebec officers ignore appeals to remove a symbolic red band from their uniforms which Indigenous witnesses have stated they perceive as “intimidation and provocation.”
Officers in Val-d’Or, in northwestern Quebec, begin wearing the bands after their eight colleagues were suspended following the allegations of mistreatment of Indigenous women.
Police officers attached the bands, inscribed with “144” — the number of the Val-d’Or detachment — to the top of their Sûreté du Québec vests, just above their name tags.
Justice Jacques Viens states, “I have hoped that at some point this practice would be abandoned.”
Michèle Audette, a commissioner on the Federal inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG) tells SQ Capt. Paul Charbonneau, who is in charge of discipline and legal services in the provincial police service, that the wearing of the red bands was not helping to promote reconciliation and that he should speak to his superiors about banning them.
In October 2018 a retired Quebec police officer pleads guilty to charges laid against him, in the only criminal case to go forward following the allegations of police misconduct in Val-d’Or in 2015.
Jean-Luc Vollant pleads guilty to sexual assault on Oct. 5. at the Sept-Îles courthouse, after being charged in 2016 for rape, indecent assault and sexual assault, for incidents which occurred during his time working with the local police force, not the Surete du Quebec, in Schefferville in the 1980s.
The two other charges of rape and indecent assault were automatically dropped, due to a provision in the Criminal Code which states a person cannot be convicted twice for the same crime.
By pleading guilty, Vollant avoids going to trial, denying victims their chance to speak publicly within the justice system about their abuse.
There had been one other officer charged with sexual assault and assault with a weapon in the aftermath of the Val d’Or affair. Alain Juneau, worked with the Sûreté du Québec in Schefferville, in the 1990s, but Juneau committed suicide in early 2017, two months after the Crown laid charges against him.
In late October 2018 the person who commanded the Quebec provincial police in 2015 said he had no clue there were any problems of police misconduct at the Val-d’Or detachment, even in the months leading up to a wave of public allegations made by Indigenous women in the region.
Martin Prud’homme testifies at the Viens inquiry that, “Until May 2015, I didn’t have any information or details that led me to think there was a major problem in Val-d’Or.”
Prud’homme’s testimony contradicts that of Jean Vicaire, a police officer who worked with the SQ in Val-d’Or in 2013. In August Vicaire told the Viens inquiry that he had informed his superior of allegations of misconduct that had been reported to him by a local politician.
Vicaire states that he told his supervisor at the time and was shocked when that manager said he was already aware of the allegations, naming a specific officer. Vicaire also testified that his fellow SQ officers had told him of intoxicated Indigenous people being taken on “starlight tours.”
When asked if this was a “phenomenon that is well-known within the SQ?” Prud’homme responded that he had never heard of such a practice before.
On Friday December 13th, 2018 the Viens Commission completed their work, just two weeks late of the November 30th deadline. At the closing ceremony, Viviane Michel, president of Quebec Native Women, and the last person to testify before the Viens Commission, asks the inquiry members to ‘not drown out’ the stories of Val-d’Or women in their recommendations, also stating that without a real apology from police in Quebec, reconciliation will not be possible.
“Their stories must not be forgotten. They decided to make this sacrifice to make sure other women didn’t have to live through what they went through,” says Michel.
The Viens report has yet to be released. It is due this month, September 2019. But Jacques Viens has already stated he will call for better training and education for police in the province of Quebec.
This is Who Killed Theresa?
Music today by RedFox who are on tour this Fall:
Here is the english version of the 2015 Enquete television program about l’affaire Val d’Or:
And this is the french version (it’s better):
UPDATE: On September 30th, 2019 the Viens Report was released. You can read it here: https://www.cerp.gouv.qc.ca/index.php?id=2&L=1