A Quebec inquiry that examined relations between Indigenous communities and the provincial government delivered a scathing final report on Monday that called on the province to apologize to First Nations and Inuit peoples for systemic discrimination.
The Viens Commission laid out 142 recommendations, or calls to action, for the Quebec government and urged the province to move on them.
“It seems impossible to deny the systemic discrimination experienced by First Nations and Inuit peoples in their relations with the public services investigated,” retired Quebec Superior Court judge Jacques Viens wrote in his 520-page report.
“While the problems are not always systemic, the commission’s work has made one thing evident: existing structures and processes show a clear lack of sensitivity to the social, geographical and cultural realities of Indigenous peoples.”
The first of those recommendations is a “public apology to members of First Nations and Quebec’s Inuit for the harm caused by laws, policies, standards and the practices of public service providers.”
Commissioners also recommended the province adopt a motion recognizing and implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and ensuring it’s reflected in future provincial legislation.
The inquiry was convened in December 2016 to look into how Indigenous people are treated by the police, the province’s youth protection agency, health and social services as well as the justice and correctional systems.
Thirty-eight weeks of hearings ended last December, after hearing from 765 witnesses and receiving another 423 written declarations.
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The final report proposes removing language barriers, improving living conditions and expanding access to basic services many non-Indigenous people take for granted. It also recommends setting aside “colonialist or paternalistic attitudes” in policy-making.
Viens noted that often, representatives from public services commented that they were dealing with financial, staffing or federal-provincial jurisdictional obstacles in bringing about change.
“In my view, none of these arguments justify the inadequacy of actions taken by successive governments to meet the needs expressed by Indigenous peoples,” Viens said Monday as the report was released.
Viens paid tribute to the impetus for the government to act — and what drove him on some of the more difficult days of the inquiry’s work: the women who came forward to Radio-Canada’s investigative program “Enquete” to denounce misconduct by police in Val d’Or.
“I was carried by the need to live up to their courage,” Viens said.
“I would like to express my most sincere thanks to all of these women.”
Ghislain Picard, chief of the Assembly of First Nations for Quebec and Labrador, said the report fell short of looking at the plight of those women who dared to speak out against alleged abuses.
Quebec Native Women Inc., an advocacy organization, also deplored that its recommendations for Indigenous women dealing with the justice system weren’t retained.
Following an outside investigation, Quebec’s public prosecution service said there would be no charges against the officers.
Picard said beyond an apology, it’ll be up to the government of Premier François Legault to act on a commitment it made to follow through on the report and not simply shelve it.
“The conclusions are overwhelming, and the evidence is irrefutable,” Picard said in a statement. “We have before us a two-tier system. The one that must meet the expectations and needs of First Nations is sorely lacking. The current system discriminates against our peoples and makes them second-class citizens.”
Viens also recommended Quebec’s ombudsman be in charge of ensuring implementation and that his report not be shelved.
In Val d’Or, three senior Legault government ministers, including Public Security Minister Genevieve Guilbault, said they would study the report. They also convened a meeting of First Nations and Inuit leaders on Oct. 17 to discuss which of the recommendations to prioritize.
“It’s through dialogue with all Aboriginal communities that we are going to find the right solutions to the problems that were pointed out,'” Guilbault said. “The report said that unfortunately, Aboriginal groups are victims of racism today…. It is through dialogue with the communities that we are going to find those solutions.”
Indigenous Affairs Minister Sylvie D’Amours said Legault will make a declaration in connection with the Viens Commission report, but she would not divulge if it would include an apology.
Legault told Radio-Canada he would follow up on the commission’s findings.
“We must change the way we provide services to Indigenous Peoples in Quebec,” he said.
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