‘Both ambitious and reasonable’: Chiefs lay out priorities for work on Viens commission’s calls to action

Leaders of various Indigenous organizations and representatives of the Quebec government convened at the Delta hotel in downtown Montreal for a second meeting since the release of the Viens Commission report last year – with a productive outcome, according to the province’s minister of Indigenous affairs.

While addressing reporters after the closing of the day-long summit, Minister Sylvie D’Amours said she was happy with the results of the much-anticipated meeting, and that discussions were “very positive and very constructive.”

But for his part, Ghisain Picard, regional chief of the Assembly of First Nations for Quebec and Labrador said that Monday’s progress doesn’t negate the fact that there’s work still to be done to ensure the commission’s calls to action – as well as those outlined in the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls are addressed and ultimately applied by representatives of the provincial government.

“What we need to understand is that the task is enormous. Colossal,” Picard explained. “I think this second meeting was a good opportunity to take a step further.

“We need to be ambitious, and reasonable.”

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In broad strokes, the commission’s final report – made public last September – concluded that Indigenous people in Quebec are victims of systemic discrimination when it comes to accessing public services.

In his 488 page document, Judge Jacques Viens lists out a series of 142 calls to action intended to “prevent or eliminate, regardless of origin and cause, all forms of violence, discriminatory practices, and differential treatment imposed on Indigenous peoples.”

The commission was triggered a year after a group of First Nations women in Val d’Or, a city 600 km northwest of Montreal, alleged they had been sexually assaulted by on-duty officers from the provincial police force, the Surete du Quebec (SQ).

The intent of Monday’s meeting was to establish a “working plan” to ensure that the interactions between parties don’t stagnate, and that implementation of the recommendations will become reality.

During the meeting, First Nations and Inuit chiefs presented Quebec with a tentative three-part plan, the details of which have yet to be divulged.

Picard did explain that the presented plan involves tackling bilateral issues in increments, with continued emphasis on First Nations realities, not Quebec’s.

But critics of the government questioned Premier Francois Legault’s commitment to this dialogue when he announced he would not be attending the summit in Montreal.

Legault was also notably criticized for not attending the first work meeting held on October 17th of last year; when questioned on this, D’Amours said it’s standard procedure for ministers to parlay concerns to the premier when they are not explicitly political.

But leaders felt it was a big day for Legault to leave an empty seat at the table.

“[Stakeholders are] definitely disappointed that the premier is not here, especially considering that he himself found it very important to develop the political relationship between First Nations and the government of Quebec,” Picard explained.

Manon Masse, co-spokesperson for opposition party Quebec Solidaire, chimed in to say that Legault needs to “walk the walk” where First Nations issues are concerned.

“It’s the recognition that when you want to really apply the UN declaration on First Nations rights – you have to walk with the First Nations to recognize how we’re going to make it possible,” Masse told reporters.

“Women, and our populations in general, are expecting concrete action,” she added. “We can’t let the government go too easy on the need to move forward on these two reports.”

Picard said there’s a number of key or “priority” issues that are preoccupying the regional chiefs.

Youth protection, a cornerstone of the Viens commission report, is one.

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and fundamental rights recognition as well, but Picard conceded there are “many others.”

“We need to set the course for a proper process,” he said. “It’s too important; it touches the lives of too many people.”

While the release of the final report triggered a public apology from Legault at the National Assembly, his promise to act, according to critics, has seen little progress.

In a letter addressed to the premier, Picard said there was “ample” material to put the two parties to work – including the CAQ’s decision to legally challenge Federal child welfare legislation – Bill C-92 – in the eleventh hour before its implementation on January 1st.

According to David Birnbaum, Liberal member of the National Assembly and critic for Indigenous Affairs, Legault’s decision to challenge C-92 “cast doubt” on the seriousness the government takes in its relations with First Nations.

“So far, we have the impression that the CAQ (the government) is holding these meetings without any real intentions of developing a concrete action plan,” Birnbaum said via a statement. “Beyond excuses, there are actions.”

In response to Picard’s written concerns, Legault said in a letter he “sincerely hoped” Monday’s meeting would “provide an opportunity for productive discussions” which will “help us understand each other and work together more effectively.”

“The enrichment of the nation-to-nation relationship between our two peoples is one of my key political commitments,” Legault wrote. “I would like, today, to reiterate my firm intention of working alongside you to further the prosperity and common good of our nations.”

While the public apology and subsequent communication did, at least to Picard, indicate some political goodwill, he says proof of their sincerity will be action-based.

“We get many apologies, but actions seem to be late in happening,” Picard said.

Another area of concern is the appointment of a body to enforce the calls to action.

A previous proposal to have the Quebec Ombudsman take over was met with skepticism by those who felt an Indigenous figure would be best suited for the task.

“We’ve already met with Judges from the Superior Court, and they seem very interested in getting involved. Over all of that, I think there needs to be some kind of mechanism for oversight,” Picard said. “Because of the amount of work, there’s certainly a danger of confusion.”

For her part, D’Amours said the perspectives and realities of Indigenous women and public services – like those that served as the catalyst for the Viens commission – need to be explored in more depth.

“I didn’t make a joke when I said I don’t want those reports to sit on a shelf and collect dust,” D’Amours said.

“There are still women who are assaulted, there are women who are disappearing – so for me, it’s the pressing need to help and work with these women as soon as possible.”

Meanwhile, D’Amours said Quebec and the AFNQL will be speaking at more regular intervals, starting with one phone call a week.

“It’s not because I want us to rush; it’s because I want to work to save lives,” she added.

A technical meeting – to be attended by Legault – is expected to be held this spring.

A date and location are still to be determined.

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