MONTREAL – Quebec provincial police are investigating after a young First Nations man was apparently violently assaulted by two police officers.
The assault took place in the isolated community of La Romaine, an Innu First Nations reserve that is part of the Unamen Shipu band in the Cote-Nord region of Quebec.
Nathalie Girard, a spokesperson for the Surete du Quebec (SQ) confirmed that an incident took place in La Romaine last Tuesday.
“On the 16th of July, a citizen called to report a disturbance in a residence in La Romaine,” she told Global News. “I would describe it as noise and the sounds of a fight.”
She confirmed that later, a second call was received that evening, reporting another altercation and police were sent to the scene.
It was there that they encountered 24-year-old Norbert Mestenapeo and this happened:
The disturbing video was shot from a car across the street from the incident. It shows two Quebec provincial police officers who appear to be violently assaulting a man in the middle of a dusty road.
He is repeatedly beaten with a baton and pummelled with fists. At one point the officers lift the man up to a standing position, only to throw him to the ground and continue the assault. At no point during the video does the man appear to resist.
According to reports, when police arrived at the scene, they advised Mestenapeo they had a warrant for his arrest. He apparently argued with the officers, who then assaulted him.
The Quebec provincial police force has confirmed that it is launching two separate investigations into the alleged assault in La Romaine.
“The investigations will not be conducted by colleagues who worked directly with one another,” Girard confirmed.
One will look into how the police officers conducted themselves and the other is a criminal investigation. Both will be conducted by the SQ.
“That’s not normal procedure,” noted criminal defence attorney Eric Sutton. “When there’s a complaint of police abuse, it’s always a different police force that conducts the investigation.”
According to the Quebec Ombudsman, typically in such cases, the Public Security Ministry entrusts the investigation to a police force other than the one involved in the incident. When the police force completes its investigation, it submits a report to the Director of Criminal and Penal Prosecutions, who decides whether or not criminal prosecution is warranted.
The brutal attack has outraged First Nations leaders, police chiefs and community members.
“In my community we are a peace-loving people, and as Chief of Unamen Shipu, I do not accept that my population be treated in this manner,” said Chief Raymond Bellefleur in a statement.
“Our elders are frightened, and our youths and women are terrified by police brutality. That has to stop now. Our policing services must be restored very quickly.”
The response of William Moffat, the Treasurer for the First Nations Chiefs of Police Association (FNCPA) was unequivocal.
“I looked at the video, one word, unacceptable!” he said via email. “Observed one officer striking Norbert Mestenapeo with a baton and the second officer striking in the facial area. Both officers striking in the red zone area, unacceptable.”
I am sure both police officers were trained properly by ENPQ to use proper techniques. Both officers did not follow protocol.”
As for next steps?
“I would recommend an outside police agency should investigate the incident such as the RCMP or OPP . . . Looking at the video reminds me of the 1981 crisis in Listuguj, QC.”
Henry Vicaire agrees. He is the chief of police in Listuguj Mi’gmaq First Nation in Quebec.
“It was pretty brutal,” he told Global News. “Not the sort of thing taught in basic training. I found it quite excessive.”
“There’s been a problem with First Nations policing and it’s always due to lack of funding. If this was handled by our own people, things like this don’t happen.
“Most communities have First Nations police forces but due to lack of funding and poor working conditions . . . crazy hours, very low pay, lack of equipment, housing for officers – we’re not funded for that.”
La Romaine is a remote First Nations community, accessible only by boat or plane. Until recently, it’s approximately 1000 residents were served by a First Nations police force and the Surete du Quebec (SQ) played only “a complementary role alongside the Native nations’ police forces.”
However, the First Nations’ police force has been dramatically reduced after cuts introduced by the Federal and provincial governments and, like in many other isolated Aboriginal communities, in Unamen Shipu, the Surete du Quebec recently took over after the First Nations police force had to be shut down.
Jean Paul Duval, a spokesperson for Public Safety Canada, said that policing services within each province and territory of Canada are the “responsibility of that respective province or territory.”
According to Duval, First Nations Policing Program (FNPP) funded policing services are “intended to supplement, but not replace, provincial police services.”
But in the case of the community where Norbert Mestenapeo was allegedly attacked?
“The region of La Romaine received FNPP funding from 1996-2007,” he said via email. “The Surete du Quebec has been the sole service provider in the region of La Romaine since 2007.”
The change has had a profound impact.
“In the Algonquin community of Lac Simon, our police force is constantly threatened by decisions of the two governments. Our people, especially our women, don’t want our police force to come to an end and they are afraid of police brutality,” Salomé McKenzie, Chief of the Lac Simon Algonquin community, said in a statement.
“As Chief of my community, I will pursue my efforts to make sure my community is safe and served by police officers who understand our reality.”
This is something that FNCPA treasurer William Moffat agreed with wholeheartedly.
“First Nation policing is needed in all First Nation communities,” said Moffat. “Are we able to police ourselves? The answer is yes. Do we have the training and expertise? The answer is yes. Do we have the funding? Answer is no!”
According to Duval, for 2013-14, there are 21 self-administered policing agreements in Quebec, covering 38 communities for a total federal investment of approximately $28.4 million.
“On March 4, 2013, the federal government announced the renewal of the First Nations Policing Program with associated funding of $612.4M over five years. Federal officials have begun discussions with First Nation and Inuit communities and the province of Quebec toward four-year FNPP agreements, to begin in 2014-2015.”
Quebec Minister of Public Security Stephane Bergeron would not provide a direct comment, but a spokesperson for his office confirmed that the Minister is following the situation closely.
“The outlook in First Nation policing does not look good in the future, current agreements are being forced upon us, take it or lose your department,” said Moffat.
Vicaire agrees. “Promises are usually made, but it’s slow. It all comes down to dollars.”
– With a file from Caroline Plante