Quebec’s premier has tapped Ian Lafrenière, a high-profile Montreal police officer-turned-politician, as his minister responsible for Indigenous affairs in a bid to strengthen relations with First Nations leaders.
After two years, Sylvie D’Amours was shuffled out of François Legault’s cabinet on Friday and the deputy minister is also being replaced.
“I think Ian has all the qualities to take on these responsibilities,” Legault told reporters during the announcement at the national assembly.
The shuffle comes one day after Legault voiced his frustration with D’Amours, saying he planned to be “more personally involved” with the file. When asked if she was still the right person for the job, he said he was “looking at the situation.”
D’Amours has faced mounting criticism in wake of the death of Joyce Echaquan, an Atikamekw woman who was taunted by Joliette hospital staff while she pleaded for help.
A series of investigations have been launched into the troubling circumstances surrounding the mother of seven’s death, which has prompted protests across Quebec and raised questions about how Indigenous people and communities are treated in the province’s health-care system.
D’Amours came under fire from the opposition for lauding the government’s efforts to implement recommendations from the Viens Commission one day after the death of Echaquan.
The head of the Quebec Liberals had called for D’Amours’ resignation, saying she was unfit to handle the portfolio.
Lafrenière, for his part, joined the political sphere in 2018 when he stepped down from police service to run under the Coalition Avenir Quebec banner. This will be his first cabinet minister role.
He served as an inspector who ran the communications department for Montreal police. Lafrenière is the MNA for Vachon, a riding on Montreal’s south shore that was once a Parti Québécois stronghold.
Legault says Lafrenière is well suited to take on the position, citing his leadership skills and “excellent relationships” with some of Quebec’s Indigenous communities.
“What I’m asking of Ian is to make concrete gains in the next months for men, women and children in Indigenous communities,” Legault said.
Appointment met with surprise, hope for change
While Indigenous leaders have repeatedly called on Legault to recognize systemic racism in the province he has maintained his opposition to the term.
Lafrenière also stuck to the premier’s line and said systemic racism doesn’t exist in the province.
“I recognize that there is racism. I recognize that there is profiling. I recognize that there is discrimination,” he said. “I also recognize that, at present, the term ‘systemic racism’ is not universally accepted.”
The new cabinet appointee said his priority is to meet with leaders from different Indigenous communities in Quebec. Lafrenière said he hopes to build trust and have an open dialogue with them.
The appointment came as a surprise to Nakuset, the executive director of the Native Women’s Shelter in Montreal.
“He played down the whole systemic racism within the police force against Indigenous people, so how does he get the privilege of being our spokesperson?” she said. “I don’t know.”
Ghislain Picard, chief of the Assembly of First Nations for Quebec and Labrador, says he hopes the change will mean a fresh start with the government he describes as often being hard to engage.
“In light of the events of the last two weeks, let’s all hope this is a game-changer,” he said.
“And you know, as I said, Indigenous issues have not occupied the space that they have for the past two weeks in the national assembly, ever.”
— With files from Global News’ Raquel Fletcher and the Canadian Press