Luc Picard and Rodrigue Vachon are what you’d call die-hard action movie fans – except the lifelong friends never imagined they’d be subject of a heavy-handed police intervention when heading out together to cruise the Nitassinan, an area considered sacred to the Innu in Quebec.
In an exclusive interview with APTN Nouvelles Nationales, the men revisited the day in late January when they were mistakenly arrested and detained by Surete du Quebec (SQ) officers operating on the territory.
Both say they’re grappling with post-traumatic stress after the fact.
“While we used to be happy to go out onto the territory, more and more, that happiness was extinguished,” 57-year-old Picard explained in Innu.
“[The incident] turned off the emotion that we felt,” he added.
On the afternoon of Jan. 30, the two men from Pessamit, a community in Quebec’s Cote-Nord region, were intercepted by SQ officers while driving together on a main road.
The men say their vehicle was boxed in by two police cruisers – one in the front, and one in the back.
The officers allegedly drew their weapons and used a megaphone to order the men to exit the vehicle with hands above their heads, before ordering them to kneel on the frozen ground.
Picard says he and Vachon were then handcuffed and detained in separate cars.
“When they handcuffed me, the officer said, ‘You’re under arrest for theft, mischief, and breaking-and-entering a chalet.’ That’s the way they informed me when I was put into handcuffs.”
Picard tried to explain to police that they had the wrong men.
Vachon says he was never given a reason for the arrest.
“They cuff me, and then they read me my rights – But I didn’t know why I was arrested. They never told me,” Vachon explained.
“They said, ‘Do you know your rights?’ I said, ‘Yes I know’,” he added. “But he read them to me, saying, ‘I have to let you know your rights anyways.’”
The men were questioned separately, and released after verification by the SQ.
“I heard the officer talking to HQ – to central HQ at Baie-Comeau. He said, ‘They’re not the ones we’re looking for.’ And I was so happy,” Picard recounted. “It’s like when an over-inflated balloon gets deflated again – that’s how I felt.”
“I was sweating. I’m still scared,” he added.
With help from Pessamit band council officials, the men filed a formal complaint alleging they were racially profiled by provincial police.
“I was a police officer for several years – I’ve done routine checks. Obviously there’s a preamble before drawing your service weapon. We also have to take precautions because we don’t want anything to happen – either to the police officer or to the civilian,” Pessamit councillor Jerome St-Onge told APTN shortly after the incident took place.
“If they had run the vehicle’s plates first, they would’ve discovered, one, the registration was correct, and two, the licence of the man who was driving the vehicle was correct – He had no priors. These are two individuals without a criminal history,” St-Onge added.
“Knowing that might’ve made a difference. It’s a troubling situation.”
The shakedown – and the subsequent complaint – have the attention of the province’s Bureau des Enquetes Independantes, the watchdog organization called to investigate whenever a civilian is injured or killed during a police intervention.
The BEI was unavailable for comment before publishing time.
Meanwhile, the regional SQ detachment has not issued a public statement or an apology regarding the incident.
An SQ representative declined APTN’s interview request earlier this month, saying the case is now subject of an external investigation.
Indigenous Affairs Minister Ian Lafreniere – himself a former Montreal police officer – said he is also following the case along with the province’s Public Security Minister Genevieve Guilbault.
“I am in contact with the Chief of the community of Pessamit, and one of its councillors,” Lafreniere said via Facebook post on Feb. 3.
“I was very happy to hear they are in contact with the SQ, and that there’s a good collaboration.”
But for the two men involved, the altercation left an indelible impression.
They now feel uneasy traversing the territory which, for so long, was considered a grounding and sacred space for the Innu.
“When they go out on their territory, all Innu are happy – so very happy,” Picard added.