Quebec Premier Francois Legault replaced his Indigenous affairs minister with a former Montreal police officer Friday, as his government looked to reset relations with First Nations leaders.
Ian Lafreniere, a former cop who won a Montreal-area riding with Legault's party in the 2018 election, takes over from Sylvie D'Amours, whose performance as minister had been criticized.
Relations between some Indigenous communities and the government hit a low point after the death of Joyce Echaquan, an Atikamekw woman subjected to slurs by staff as she lay dying in hospital last week.
Legault told reporters Friday it was important to make a change, adding the department's longtime deputy minister was also being replaced.
Indigenous leaders have called on Legault to recognize the existence of systemic racism in the province, but he has repeatedly rejected the term.
The new cabinet appointee stuck to the premier's line and said systemic racism doesn't exist in Quebec.
"I recognize that there is racism," Lafreniere told reporters. "I recognize that there is profiling. I recognize that there is discrimination. I also recognize that, at present, the term 'systemic racism' is not universally accepted."
Lafreniere said that what people want to see is concrete action, and that Legault is confident change can come despite disagreement over the term.
"I'm optimistic that the different representatives of the different nations will accept to discuss, negotiate, fight against racism without us having to change our position on systemic racism," Legault said alongside his new minister.
The head of the Assembly of First Nations for Quebec-Labrador expressed optimism at the news. Chief Ghislain Picard said a new minister was an "opportunity to renew relations that have been damaged in recent months between the government and First Nations."
Constant Awashish. grand chief of the Council of the Atikamekw Nation, said he hoped to move things forward in honor of Echaquan. "For the Indigenous people who are victims of systemic discrimination, we must now undertake change, drastically," he said.
On Thursday, the premier refused to express support for D'Amours and lamented that his government had been slow at implementing recommendations from a commission that investigated the mistreatment of Indigenous people by the provincial public service.
The Quebec inquiry overseen by retired judge Jacques Viens issued a damning report last year that called on the province to apologize to First Nations and Inuit peoples for systemic discrimination. The Viens commission laid out 142 recommendations for the Quebec government, but a year later, many of them haven't been implemented.
Lafreniere wouldn't tip his hand on how he would act on those recommendations, adding his first step is to speak with community leaders.
"The most thing important thing is to work together on that, not to impose my view," Lafreniere said.
— This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 9, 2020.
— With files from Caroline Plante in Quebec City and Sidhartha Banerjee in Montreal.
The Canadian Press