What to Know about the Viens Commission

We’re On Indigenous Land 

COCo has been trying to reflect in more concrete and intentional ways what it means for us to be located on Indigenous land. 

A part of this has been reflecting on how we can follow up on the demands and recommendations made in things like the Truth and Reconciliation Report, and the Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. One of those requests is to read and engage with those reports themselves, and so we are taking that as a starting point: to read them, to write about them, and to talk about them with our own audience.  One of our goals this year is to make our way through the MMIWG report, including writing about our own takeaways and reflections from each section in our newsletters. 

Sometimes the demands and takeaways will relate directly to the work of nonprofits; other times they will be broader than our usual ‘beat’, because we want for ourselves to engage with seriousness and accountability to these questions. 

Context of the Viens Commission

This newsletter was in progress right when the results of the Viens Commission were released. 

You might remember that in 2015, a story broke that told of the experiences of dozens of Indigenous women who had experienced violence and intimidation, sexual harassment, sexual assault, and “starlight tours” from police officers in Val d’Or, Quebec. First, the SQ offered to investigate itself; then, the SPVM took over the investigation. The officers were suspended with pay during that investigation, which ended when they decided to lay no charges against police officers who had participated (eventually, one police officer was charged, which you can read about here). The outrage that followed finally pushed the provincial government to create the ‘Viens Commission’. 

From the start, however, the Viens Commission was given a mandate went beyond the situation in Val d’Or. Its mandate was to look into discrimination and racism within public services, including health care, youth protection, the correctional system, justice and policing. At the time, Indigenous women leaders like Viviane Michel from Quebec Native Women suggested that this actually took away focus from the experiences of the women in Val d’Or, and was another layer of ‘invisibilizing’ what they had experienced. These issues echo the problems experienced by the Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, particularly in Quebec

In total, 1,188 stories and expert opinions were shared over the 38 weeks of hearings across multiple cities in Quebec. 

Results of the Viens Commission 

The results of the Viens Commission are pretty scathing- or as scathing as these kind of things get. Here are a few excerpts we found particularly striking: 

  1. “Having completed my analysis, it seems impossible to deny that members of First Nations and Inuit are victims of systemic discrimination in their relations with the public services that are the subject of this inquiry.”

  2. “Many 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. In some cases this lack of sensitivity manifests as a complete lack of service, which leaves entire populations to their own devices with no ability to remedy their situations. In this way, thousands have been stripped not only of their rights, but of their dignity, as they are forced to live under deplorable conditions, deprived of their own cultural references. In a developed society such as ours this reality is simply unacceptable.”

  3. “The conclusion is undeniable. The unequal relationship imposed on Indigenous peoples stripped them of the ability to control their own destiny and fuelled a degree of distrust of public services that has been reinforced even further by certain events of the recent past.”

  4. “When asked what was being done and what needed to be done to improve the situation, the public service representatives at the hearing spoke of many obstacles to change, including the limited financial and human resources available to them and the need to respect the division of powers imposed by the Canadian constitutional framework. In my opinion, none of those arguments make it acceptable for successive government actions not to have addressed the needs expressed by Indigenous peoples.”

What Next?

The focus of this report was public services, but as we know, many community groups are increasingly in the position of themselves providing public services in lieu of the government. One question that came out of reading this report for us was: for nonprofits who have taken on providing parts of public services, how can we integrate and understand the results of this report? What are the direct applications of these findings to our work?

One of the obvious questions that arises out of these reports is what kind of difference they make if there is no one to keep the government accountable to the demands. In the vase of the Viens commission, the recommendation was made to have the Ombudsperson be in charge of holding the government accountable – interesting because it offers an option, but also because the Ombudsperson also received its own serious scolding recently from the courts for failing to uphold their mandate. 

And, of course, as strong as the language is in this report, it does not include substantive accountability for the situation that triggered the commission in the first place. As Viviane Michel said last week, “it would be wrong to believe that the commission has duly fulfilled its mandate with Indigenous women.”

You can read the summary of the Viens commission here