Odanak man says human rights commission must change system if it truly wants to help people

Alex Wawanoloath found that the investigator in his car insurance complaint works in the business.

Alexis Wawanoloath just wanted car insurance.

What he got instead was a two-year headache involving both Industrial Alliance – the company he consulted with – and Quebec’s Human Rights Tribunal.

“I can’t even imagine the people who don’t have a law degree, how it could be difficult to face all these sad and frustrating processes,” Wawanoloath told APTN News.

“So for other people, I want these organizations – the commission and the insurance company – to understand what they’ve done, and maybe change,” he added.

Wawanoloath, an Abenaki man from Odanak – 90 minutes northeast of Montreal – made history in 2007 when he became the first Indigenous member of Quebec’s National Assembly since First Nations obtained the right to vote.

In 2018, Wawanolath says he approached Industrial Alliance about their auto insurance policies, but was turned down because he lives on-reserve.

“I called the number of Industrial Alliance, and the moment I gave them my postal code – which is on reserve – the lady says ‘oh that’s on-reserve, we can’t insure you,’” he recounted.

“They told me it was the business’ policy, and that’s how it was,” Wawanoloath added. “And if I made a complaint, it would go nowhere.”

APTN asked Industrial Alliance to clarify the reasoning behind the refusal.

In an email, they said they’ve “chosen to be present in certain regions of Quebec, and not in others – whether they are Indigenous or not – with a view to always offer the best service to our customers.”

Not long after the refusal, Wawanoloath filed a complaint with the Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse, the province’s human rights tribunal, alleging systemic racism by the insurance company.

Mediation was offered, but Wawanoloath says the sessions were unsuccessful.

More than a year into the process – and while the COVID-19 pandemic was in full swing – he says he was contacted by the human rights commission with a request for more paperwork.

In late August, after informing the investigator that he would not be able to accommodate the request within the timeframe provided, Wawanoloath received written notice that his file at the commission was closed.

One day, he decided to do a web search, and found the investigator assigned to his file was – according to his Linkedin page – a “claims adjuster since 2008” and a licensed insurance professional operating his own company.

“This guy has an $80,000 job with the commission to make inquiries, and he has a sideline – a company that offers some services to insurance companies,” he explained. “So I saw a conflict of interest there.”

As a result, Wawanoloath decided to take his concerns to the next level.

In late September, he penned a letter to the president of the human rights commission, cc’ing provincial ministers Nadine Girault and Lionel Carment, who are currently heading Quebec’s anti-racism task force.

He’s demanding his complaint be handled by an independent external investigator, since the “[Commission’s] procedures “clearly pose systemic barriers to fair access to services.”

He’s also calling for an external investigation into the impartiality of their investigations.

“The fact remains that our rights as Indigenous people are often infringed upon by the organization that is supposed to be there to help us,” Wawanoloath said. “They didn’t respond when I asked how many Indigenous people were working within the commission to serve First Nations.”

According to the Centre for Research Action on Race Relations – the Montreal-based organization assisting Wawanoloath in the complaint process – the commission did not accept the request to assign an independent investigator to the file.

“In the meantime, [the commission] must correct the deficiencies preventing it from having both the credibility and the competence to serve the Indigenous people who call upon them,” Fo Niemi, CRARR’s executive director, said in a statement.

In addition, Niemi says the commission failed to provide responses to questions about managing conflicts of interest, or about the under-representation of Indigenous people in its investigative services.

In response, the commission stated it does not comment on confidential – or open – case files.

“We can however confirm, as mentioned by the complainant, that the file is still active and in process,” a commission spokesperson said in an email to APTN. “We would like to reiterate that our investigative work is conducted in a rigorous, impartial manner and without conflicts of interest.”

Wawanoloath, having experienced the process firsthand, disagrees.

“You know, systemic racism isn’t necessarily an intention or a will – it can come from a direct intention, but it [also] comes from policies like that. We think we’re enforcing it for everyone, but at the end of the day, it has a detrimental, discriminatory effect,” he said.

“I want an independent inquiry about my case, an independent inquiry about their employees who have conflicts of interest, and I want to know what they’re doing about their own systemic racism,” Wawanoloath added.