The mayor of Val d’Or is appealing for calm as tensions rise in his northwestern Quebec city following a report that provincial police officers stationed there sexually abused aboriginal women.
Mayor Pierre Corbeil said the abuse allegations, first reported last Thursday by Radio-Canada, have had the impact of “an electro-shock” on the city’s 33,000 residents.
“Reactions range from sympathetic to skeptical. There are people who say straightaway, ‘It’s about time this came out,’ and there are others who say, ‘Is it really that big a deal?’” Corbeil said in a phone interview.
“Everybody is talking about it. Everywhere you go in town you’ll hear comments on one side or the other.”
Quebec Public Security Minister Lise Thériault announced Friday that eight Sûreté du Québec officers who were the subject of complaints had been placed on leave and that an existing internal SQ investigation into the sexual abuse allegations had been transferred to the Montreal police force.
‘I question the pertinence of punishing a community for the actions of individuals’
Wiping away tears, she said she had been “shocked” by the stories aboriginal women told Radio-Canada of cruel treatment at the hands of provincial police officers, who allegedly plied women with alcohol and drugs in exchange for sex. She went on to say there could be some “rotten” members on the force.
As Quebec’s First Nations leaders gather in Val d’Or Tuesday for an emergency meeting to address the situation, some SQ officers are complaining that they have been unfairly scapegoated.
An online petition, apparently begun by an SQ officer, calls on Thériault to apologize to “all police officers” for choosing sides before the facts are known. “Through the lack of control of her emotions and through her words, minister Thériault helped increase the public’s anger toward the police officers of Quebec,” the petition, which had amassed 1,200 signatures by Monday evening, says.
Pierre Veilleux, president of the association representing Quebec’s 5,400 provincial police officers, said the allegations remain unproven and the eight officers placed on leave should be presumed innocent. “It is high time that various players on the public scene stop fuelling public outrage toward the officers of the Sûreté du Québec,” he said in a statement.
Émilie Simard, an aide to Thériault, said the minister will let the investigation follow its course. “While she was touched by Thursday’s (Radio-Canada) report, she reiterates her confidence in the police,” Simard said.
With Algonquin reserves nearby and the James Bay territory of the Cree stretching to the north, Val d’Or has a longstanding relationship with aboriginal communities and roughly 1,000 of its residents are of First Nations origin, Corbeil said.
“It is a daily relationship, in the streets, in businesses, in services, at schools, and at the hospital,” he said. “We have to work as much as possible to harmonize it and denounce acts of discrimination or racism.”
Corbeil said he had heard complaints of police brutality toward First Nations members before but never sexual violence. He said he met with native leaders Monday, who are worried their people could face a backlash as a result of the police controversy. He is also trying to dissuade Cree leaders from going ahead with a threatened boycott of Val d’Or businesses.
“I question the pertinence of punishing a community for the actions of individuals,” he said.