When will our Indigenous communities get the respect and justice they deserve?

Three news stories converged yesterday to send a message that we need to do better.

There are days when everything converges around you to make a point and bring home the message — loud and clear — that we collectively need to do better.

This is how I felt Monday morning as news started trickling in. Just as the Viens Commission report was being presented in Val D’Or, the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation in Gatineau was revealing the names of 2,800 children who died in residential schools. Those are just the names they were able to confirm, by the way. There are many more who died anonymously and away from their families in the name of “killing the Indian in the child.”

Closer to home, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts was putting out a call to residents, asking them for help in finding the left arm of a totem pole that has been outside the museum since 2017, and which was recently stolen by vandals.

If the universe wanted to communicate that Indigenous communities have suffered and continue to suffer under the weight of disrespect and systemic discrimination, this trifecta of news that came at me at once managed to convey the message well.

Val’Or accusations lead to Viens commission

The Viens report, which came out yesterday, was the result of an inquiry that was launched in 2016 and heard from more than 1,000 people testifying. The commission was launched after native women in Val D’Or accused six police officers of longstanding sexual abuse. 

The accusations ranged from police officers requesting oral sex in exchange for drugs, alcohol or money, to officers picking up Indigenous women and dropping them off in the middle of nowhere miles from town in the dead of winter. No charges were ever laid against the officers.

Investigators said they believed the women had been abused but did not have enough evidence. But the public outcry and the severity and length of the accusations prompted a more in-depth investigation into the province’s youth protection agency, health officials and how the justice system treated Indigenous people.

It’s been three years since the accusations first came out. Despite the time that’s lapsed, I remember most of the details well.

I remember the bravery of the women who came forward, despite living in such a small community of 32,000 and facing possible reprisals by SQ officers who had perpetuated a climate of abuse over the years. The officers were simply “sent home” on paid leave while the investigation took place, only to see no charges laid and no justice dispensed. Sexual abuse victims have a hard enough time being believed without the added burdens of racism and classism added to the mix, decreasing the already slim chances of victims being considered credible witnesses.

I remember that out of 63 reported incidents, only two officers were even questioned about use of aggression or threats. I remember SQ Captain Guy Lapointe saying at the time that the allegations (some of which dated back 10 years) “aren’t a reflection” of the police force, because how audacious and unreasonable is it for people to think that the actions of police officers would reflect on the police force they represent.

I remember that a march in solidarity with the accused SQ police officers took place in Val D’Or and how it left me speechless and frankly a little disgusted. Among the marchers were about a dozen plainclothes police officers accompanied by their families and residents who had shown up to reiterate their faith in their police force. No marches were held for the women.

Systemic discrimination is a real problem in Quebec

Three years later, what has changed? Not much, I’m afraid. Members of Indigenous communities continue to die in alarmingly high numbers from suicide and addiction issues, we barely just managed to avert another Oka Crisis and the systemic discrimination faced by First Nations is ever-prevalent and impossible to deny.

Yet, somehow, we continue to do just that.

Thanks to the Viens Commission, we now have a 520-page report making 142 suggestions on concrete ways we can do better. Among the key suggestions, the Quebec government should apologize to First Nations and Inuit for the harm they have suffered because of provincial policies and laws.

Judge Jacques Viens lists social services, health services, justice, youth protection services, policing and corrections as just some of the major areas where significant improvements are needed. Will those who need to read the report read it? Will these apologies be issued? Will we see any significant changes in the future? I’m not holding my breath when the person in charge of the province refuses to even acknowledge that systemic racism and discrimination exist.

However, Quebec Premier François Legault did say on Monday that he would look closely at the report and its recommendations. He is scheduled to meet with Indigenous leaders and address the National Assembly on Wednesday about the report. Whether it’s for show or there is a sincere attempt to rectify past wrongs, only time will tell.

Centuries of colonialism cannot be untaught so easily

The fact that reports of systemic abuse and mistreatment were being revealed here in Quebec just as a 50-metre ceremonial cloth with the names of children who died at residential schools was being unveiled in Gatineau on Orange Shirt Day (a day that honours and remembers victims of residential schools) wasn’t lost on me. There are centuries of colonialism — and the horrific injustices perpetrated on Indigenous communities that came with it — that is part of our collective past that must be acknowledged and faced before it can be dealt with.

We like to talk about learning from history like it’s some far-away concept, but sometimes it isn’t. Residential school and Sixties Scoop survivors walk among us. The last residential school in Canada, the Gordon Residential School in Saskatchewan, only closed in 1996. That was only 23 years ago! Writer William Faulkner was right when he said, “The past is not dead. It’s not even past.”

With a collective burden as heavy as this, it’s going to take more than the occasional land acknowledgment or crocodile tears of government officials. More than anything else, it’s going to take education and raising awareness. If we are not teaching what happened to Indigenous communities, we are going to continue perpetuating the same old prejudices, stereotypes and misinformation. We are going to continue paying lip service to a national travesty and think that it’s enough.

Knowledge leads to awareness and justice

And when we don’t learn our history, we repeat it. Over and over, and over again…. And so, we get the public scorn of average Canadians and Quebecers who were only taught a whitewashed version of Canadian and Quebec history, and never truly learned the extent of abuse perpetuated on Indigenous communities.

We get the sneers and condescension of the uneducated and the uninformed who look at First Nations communities suffering intergenerational trauma revolving around the Sixties Scoop and Potlatch Laws and residential school sexual and physical abuse and can’t seem to figure out why they can’t “get their act together” like the rest of us and why they seem to be affected by hopelessness, suicide, violence and addiction issues at such a disproportionate rate.

We get people living side by side with Indigenous communities they either mistrust, fear, misunderstand, look down on or feel sorry for. They know nothing of the culture, the richness of the languages that were almost eradicated, the kindness and resilience of the people. They know nothing more than movie clichés and soundbites from Canadian tourism ads and Heritage minutes, the occasional pow-wow celebration they might have come across on Indigenous Day.

The left hand that was recently stolen from the totem pole on display outside the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts belongs to an art piece on loan from a private art collector. The art piece is titled Residential School Totem Pole and was created by artist Charles Joseph, himself a residential school survivor. His story of abuse and survival is on that totem pole.

It’s very possible that someone stealing that hand was engaging in nothing more than a dumb, drunk, youthful prank. But it’s also equally possible that the gesture says something about the lack of respect or awareness for Indigenous culture and history since the vandal or vandals thought nothing of yanking it off and making off with it as if it were a silly garden ornament on someone’s lawn instead of a sacred object with deep personal meaning for the artist. The way the municipality of Oka once thought that it was perfectly okay to build luxury condos and a golf course over a community’s burial grounds. The way the Canadian government thought nothing of cutting the long hair off young Indigenous men to “civilize” them.

Respect and empathy cannot be legally enforced or ordered. They can only be cultivated via education, awareness and human contact.

People need to know why something is wrong, not just that it is. Only then does real change begin. ■