Quebec Premier Francois Legault announced Friday that Sylvie D’Amours was officially replaced as the province’s minister for Indigenous Affairs.
There is speculation the move to replace D’Amours was made in response to the public uproar surrounding the death of Joyce Echaquan, an Atikamekw woman who died under troubling circumstances at the Joliette hospital north of Montreal on Sept. 28.
“It’s a very tiring responsibility, and [D’Amours] gave two years and all her heart – I think that deserves thanks, so thank you very much Sylvie for those two years,” Legault said during Monday’s announcement.
Ian Lafrenière, MNA for the riding of Vachon, and former head of communications for Montreal police force, the SPVM is replacing D’Amours.
The deputy minister of Indigenous Affairs will also be replaced by an unnamed successor, according to the premier.
“This is an important responsibility – important for our government, important for Quebec – and I thought it wise and necessary to give new momentum to the relations with the 11 First Nations [in Quebec],” Legault added.
According to Legault, Lafrenière has cultivated “excellent relations” with “several First Nations communities,” though he did not specify which.
“Patience is not my greatest quality, but I am a pragmatic man,” Legault told reporters. “I want to be the government that implemented the most action to help First Nations.”
As well as being a former police officer, Lafrenière was also a firefighter and an army reservist. He’s currently heading an inquiry examining the sexual exploitation of minors.
When asked if he felt his past as a police officer will taint his relationship with First Nations, Lafrenière told media he believes it is “an asset” – something Legault agrees with.
During a media briefing on the eve of his cabinet shuffle, Legault briefly touched on dissatisfaction with the lack of follow up on the Viens Commission report, which found rampant discrimination within Quebec’s public services.
Lafrenière, a 28-year veteran of police services, will now be charged with implementing the 141 recommendations rooted in First Nations’ mistrust of Quebec’s police officers and other public services.
Read More: Joyce Echaquan
The Viens commission was established after several Indigenous women from Val d’Or alleged misconduct and sexual abuse against provincial police officers working on the territory.
The final report, compiled after hundreds of hours of public hearings, “confirmed the extremely difficult nature of the relations between Indigenous peoples and police authorities.”
At least 13 of the report’s recommendations involve changes to police protocols, education and training, funding, and making amendments to the Police Act, among others.
“Because of the historically difficult relations between Indigenous peoples and police forces, the police profession is not highly respected in those communities,” Judge Jacques Viens wrote in his final report.
“Based on how the system currently operates, there is very little that can rebuild their trust,” the report said.
But like Legault before him, the new Indigenous Affairs minister tactfully avoided recognition of “systemic racism” in Quebec during Friday’s announcement.
“I recognize there is racism, there is profiling, I recognize there is discrimination, and I recognize the term ‘systemic racism’ is not accepted unanimously,” Lafrenière said.
“And honestly, instead of putting a lot of energy into being convinced, mutually, that this is the right term, what I think people want on the ground is action,” he added.
After Echaquan, a 37-year-old Atikamekw mother of seven, died after being taunted and insulted by a nurse and patient attendan, Quebec’s opposition leaders began publicly calling for D’Amours’ resignation, saying she was “unfit” for the position.
After she was appointed in 2018, D’Amours was scrutinized for both her lack of English proficiency, and her understanding of Indigenous-specific issues overall.
D’Amours once referred to the Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador as a “fourth opposition party” while justifying the lack of progress on the Viens commission and MMIWG inquiry reports.
Last Friday, on the morning of a cancelled meeting with Legault, AFNQL Regional Chief Ghislain Picard responded to a question about whether D’Amours could hold the confidence of First Nations.
“I’m not even sure if the confidence was ever there,” he told APTN News. “The record of the last two years really speaks for itself.”
Picard, however, congratulated Lafrenière on his appointment, while emphasizing there are “several emergencies” requiring immediate attention.
He also urged more involvement from Legault.
“In Quebec’s history, breakthroughs in relations with First Nations have always been made when the Premier took his responsibility,” Picard said via a statement.
“We are clearly at a crossroads in our relationship, and a change of minister will not be enough to change [that],” Picard added. “Premier Legault needs to be more invested.”
To mark the one-year anniversary of the Viens Commission report just before she was replaced, D’Amours said 51 of its recommendations were being examined, or were already completed.
In a written statement released at the time, D’Amours blamed the COVID-19 pandemic for the setbacks.
Legault made no mention on Friday about whether D’Amours will ultimately be reassigned to another portfolio.
She did not issue a statement responding to Friday’s cabinet shuffle.
For his part, Constant Awashish, Grand Chief of the Atikamekw Nation, said “D’Amours alone cannot bear the burden of government inaction.”
“In memory of Joyce Echaquan, but also for First Nations who are victims of systemic discrimination, we need to make drastic changes,” Awashish added in a press release.
But opposition party leader and critic for Indigenous Affairs, Manon Masse, says Legault’s attempt at damage control is “starting very badly.”
“Lafrenière, while he was spokesperson for the SPVM, denied the existence of racial profiling,” Masse wrote in a Facebook post Friday. “He has spent his career improving the image of the police and defending their abuses.”
“If he wants to be credible as the new Minister of Native Affairs, Lafrenière must immediately recognize the systemic racism within the police force.”
Indigenous frontline workers in Montreal are also expressing concern over this choice.
“The awareness of discrimination and violence against Indigenous people by police across Canada is staggering,” Nakuset, Executive Director of the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal, said in a Facebook post responding to the news. “Read the Viens Commission and acknowledge the testimony of police abuse. And then the government feels he is the most appropriate person?
“Insult to injury,” she added.
With files from the Canadian Press