Quebec's civilian police watchdog has made tangible progress in investigating complaints of law enforcement abuses involving Indigenous people but remains "unacceptably opaque" and is plagued by shortcomings, an independent observer says.
In a report issued Thursday, Fannie Lafontaine, a human rights lawyer and Université Laval law professor, found that "while investigations on police officers when the victim is Indigenous have undergone positive changes since the 'Val-d'Or crisis' of 2015, the system put in place through BEI still suffers from serious shortcomings."
The investigations themselves were conducted thoroughly, professionally and scrupulously, Lafontaine found, but the organization's broader issues "are likely to undermine its legitimacy and lastingly affect public confidence in it."
The BEI is the Bureau des enquêtes indépendantes, which investigates when someone is hurt or killed during a police operation. It was created in 2013 by a provincial law and started investigating incidents in 2016.
The report described the BEI as "unacceptably opaque and unrepresentative."
But it left room for optimism, saying it was "a young institution with the potential to become a leader in Canada in the way investigations on police are conducted when the victim is Indigenous, if there is the political will to effect change."
Pierre Goulet, the BEI's director said in a release that the agency "favourably welcomes" the Lafontaine report.
He pointed out the watchdog is sometimes constrained by the law, notably preserving the rights of the accused, when it comes to providing information on its activities.
"We must seek a balance between the collective right to be informed and the individual rights of those involved," he said. "Certain recommendations might require legislative changes, which are not within the [BEI's] purview, but others concern us directly. They notably aim at improving public perception and the confidence of Indigenous communities, and I'm particularly sensitive to that aspect."
Goulet also pointed out the BEI has already started addressing other areas of concern raised by Lafontaine, including training its investigators about the myths and realities of Indigenous life.
A BEI-specific course has been set up for investigators at the Université du Québec en Abitibi-Témiscamingue, and a number of staffers are set to take it "shortly," Goulet said.
A spokesperson for Public Security Minister Geneviève Guilbault said in an email the government has taken note of the report's recommendations and that "it's clear we can improve some aspects of police work."
Lafontaine, for her part, sketched out the bigger picture: 200 Indigenous people have filed formal complaints of police misconduct in Quebec since 2015.
"It is a fact, there is systemic racism in law enforcement, just like there is in other institutions in Quebec," she told Radio-Canada. "Now it's time to change the way we do things, to give power back to Indigenous people, and give them more confidence in (the government's) institutions."
The report provides 25 recommendations aimed at improving transparency, establishing a consistent and rigorous investigative process, creating greater sensitivity to the cultural and historical context of Indigenous communities and improving diversity among the BEI's investigative teams.
Lafontaine offers an example the lack of transparency.
In the course of the Montreal police service's investigations of 61 complaints between April 2016 and September 2018, three serving officers and one retired cop were charged with offences including aggravated sexual assault.
But that information was not widely communicated by the BEI, and may not have come to light publicly without the independent auditor's report. The charges have resulted in a pair of guilty pleas and a guilty verdict in court. One of the four is still awaiting trial.
Lafontaine writes in the report that "by failing to disclose any information whatsoever on criminal investigations files into allegations of sexual assault or following a complaint by an Indigenous person, (the) BEI has one of the worst records in Canada in terms of transparency."
When prosecutors opt not to lay criminal charges, she said, the BEI should work with the Crown to release a summary of the reasons behind the decision. That could go a long way to dispelling the "well-documented distrust on the part of the public in general and of Indigenous peoples in particular," Lafontaine writes.
The report also exhorts the BEI to hire Indigenous staff.
"...It seems essential to me that in investigations in an Indigenous environment, Indigenous investigators should be included to the extent possible," it reads.
Hiring a more representative workforce would help foster closer ties with Indigenous communities. And building a real climate of trust, Lafontaine says, requires "meaningful training on Indigenous realities and cultures."
In 2015, Radio-Canada's Enquête program focused on alleged assaults and other abuses committed against Indigenous women by police in the Abitibi region.
Montreal's police service was quickly called in to investigate the conduct of Sûreté du Québec officers who were accused of kidnapping and sexual assault, among other crimes. None of the six officers faced criminal charges.
Edith Cloutier, who heads the Val d'Or Native Friendship Centre, said that reality is still difficult for the women to accept. She also highlighted the importance of another Lafontaine proposal, namely following up with complainants even though an investigation may be concluded. "We need to go beyond how we develop investigations—but it's to integrate those cultural sensitivities in how investigations are being done," she said.
Number of abuse complaints growing
Lafontaine's report examines investigations into 61 separate complaints — 37 of them brought by women.
The allegations cover a broad spectrum, but 32 involved assaults and another 18 were of a sexual nature. The bulk involved northern communities.
"The revelations of the Indigenous women of Val-d'Or have encouraged Indigenous persons all over Quebec to denounce police abuse," Lafontaine writes, in a summary of the report.
"Since then, nearly 200 criminal investigation files have been opened concerning allegations made by Indigenous persons in Quebec against a police officer."
These denunciations and continuing examples of police abuse reported in the media across Canada, "demonstrate the extent of the problem of police violence against Indigenous peoples and the urgency of providing guarantees of integrity and impartiality that can give Indigenous peoples confidence in investigations concerning police conduct," Lafontaine writes.
DPCP vows to give report full attention
Quebec's director of criminal and penal prosecutions (DPCP) is committed to improving its practices, especially when it comes to meeting the needs of crime victims, said spokesperson Audrey Roy Cloutier in an email.
Several concrete measures have already been put in place in recent years to "better supervise, train and equip our prosecutors" to meet the needs Indigenous people, she said.
"We therefore remain fully open to receiving the comments of the independent civilian observer and we intend to give them our full attention and consideration," Cloutier said.