Transparency major issue at police watchdog unit in Quebec says new report

BEI is one of the least transparent police investigation organizations in Canada says lawyer.

Quebec’s police watchdog lacks transparency when investigating complaints made by Indigenous people according to a new report by an Independent Civilian Observer.

Fannie Lafontaine, a lawyer and professor at Laval University near Quebec City, looked at how police forces handle allegations of assault or abuse by other police officers.

According to Lafontaine, the report itself is meant to “deconstruct a persistent colonial legacy” in policing.

She says she hopes the report’s recommendations will allow Quebec’s Bureau des Enquetes Independantes – or BEI – to improve itself moving forward.

“The BEI has the word ‘independent’ in it – it’s supposed to be independent so there’s no observer,” Lafontaine told APTN News. “That’s why I called for much greater transparency because at the moment, we don’t know anything, or almost anything, about the means deployed by the BEI to investigate a complaint made by an Indigenous person in Quebec against a police officer.

“The public, at this moment, has very little information it can base itself on to know what’s going on,” Lafontaine added.

The BEI is called to investigate when a civilian is injured or killed during a police intervention. They’re also tasked with investigating other police officers who are accused of criminal misconduct on the job.

In 2020, the BEI has had several high-profile Indigenous cases on their desk, including two out of province investigations – the police shooting deaths of Chantel Moore and Rodney Levi – both from New Brunswick.

Before the BEI was created in 2019, it was Montreal police force – the SPVM – who investigated allegations of police violence against First Nations.

Read More: APTN News coverage of Policing in Canada 

In 2015, Quebec’s Public Security minister tasked the SPVM with investigating the allegations of assault, and sexual assault, made by Indigenous women against provincial police officers working in Val d’Or.

Their stories would become the basis of the Viens Commission Inquiry, which in 2019 found “current institutional practices, standards, laws and policies remain a source of discrimination and inequality, to the point where they significantly taint the quality of services offered to First Nations and Inuit.”

At the same time the SPVM was mandated to look into the complaints, Lafontaine was appointed to make sure the investigations were conducted with impartiality.

A first report on the subject was released in 2016.

In her second report – one she considers a “follow-up” to the Viens commission – Lafontaine did find the SPVM conducted their investigations with “integrity and impartiality.”

“But it doesn’t negate systemic racism in policing, or in policing in Indigenous communities across the country,” Lafontaine explained.

After examining 61 complaints filed against police officers over a period of two years, Lafontaine made 25 concrete recommendations to improve what she perceived to be areas of weakness in cases where police were tasked with investigating police.

“Transparency, Indigenous representation, training, information to victim protection,” she explained. “The proposals are made to fill in these objectives, but they’re very specific. Amend section x of that act, do this, adopt a strategy in a very specific way to fulfil the objectives.”

The report reveals interesting facts about the complaints process overall.

For example, a majority of the people alleging abuse in the cases examined were from Quebec’s Cote-Nord, or Nunavik.

A significant number of complaints involve officers working with a provincial police service.

Sexual violence is the offence most often alleged by First Nations, followed by assault, forcible confinement – or “starlight tours” – and intimidation or threats.

Promptness of the investigations is identified as a “critical issue.” After the SPVM handed over its findings to prosecutors, for example, it often took more than a year to decide whether to lay criminal charges.

More often than not, according to Lafontaine, victims are never informed of the final outcome in their case.

While the SPVM was investigating, she adds, police officers accused of assault were not required to give official statements during the course of the investigation.

“I believe that when police officers are investigated, they should be systematically asked to provide a statement to investigators when the evidence raises a reasonable doubt that a crime has been committed,” Lafontaine writes in the 256-page report.

Sanctions were rarely handed down when implicated police officers refused to cooperate, or compromised an investigation, according to Lafontaine.

Overall, she says it is near-impossible to say with certainty whether the BEI has already made changes to the way their investigations are conducted.

For that reason, the report calls for the collection and publishing of data on the ethnic origin and Indigenous identity of individuals and police officers involved in their investigations.

“BEI has one of the worst records in Canada in terms of transparency,” Lafontaine’s report reads. “A detailed summary of the investigations carried out by BEI would allow the public to know the facts surrounding the police intervention and the means used to uncover the truth, judge how thorough and serious the investigation was, and better understand the decision not to lay charges.”

Quebec’s Ligue des Droits et Libertes – a civil rights organization – looked at the BEI’s first three years of external investigations and made their own series of recommendations earlier this year.

Like Lafontaine’s report, the Ligue des Droits attacked the BEI’s opacity, lack of sanctions for officers, and failure at taking Indigenous realities into account.

According to their data, as of February 2020, the BEI had investigated 133 allegations of misconduct, but only five cases closed with criminal charges being laid.

“The Minister of Public Security has in her hands credible and independent reports which will enable her to undertake the important reform of the BEI, which is imperative,” LDL spokesperson Eve-Marie Lacasse said in a statement.

The Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador said Lafontaine’s recommendations are “necessary and urgent” in order to restore trust between police services and First Nations.

“This report is an unequivocal demonstration of what is referred to as systemic racism,” AFNQL Regional Chief Ghislain Picard explained. “Even if the government refuses to use this term, it cannot ignore the correctness of Me. Lafontaine’s observations and recommendations.”

With Ian Lafreniere – a 30-year Montreal police veteran – now heading the province’s Indigenous Affairs portfolio, Lafontaine says a gesture of good faith would be to start seriously examining the recommendations made in her reports, as well as the Viens Commission inquiry report, and the MMIWG Quebec-specific report.

“[My report] sort of highlights the importance of the very process of criminal investigations into Indigenous complaints against police officers. What’s at stake here is police conduct, which may or may not be motivated by racism individually, but that is sort of the result of a system of racism within police forces,” Lafontaine added.

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