Quebec’s premier apologized to First Nations and Inuit people Wednesday for discrimination they suffered in dealing with the state, noting the province had failed in its duty to them.
Francois Legault acknowledged that apologies are but a first step and more work needs to be done to break down barriers and rectify long-standing problems.
“I offer Quebec’s First Nations and Inuit members the most sincere apology from all of Quebec,” Legault said in a brief address to the national assembly as dozens of Indigenous leaders looked on from the visitor’s gallery.
“The state of Quebec has failed in its duty to you, and it asks you today for forgiveness.”
The apology was the first of 142 calls to action laid out by the Viens commission, which concluded in a scathing report released Monday that the province’s Indigenous communities suffered “systemic discrimination.”
In an address made entirely in French, Legault called the findings in the report devastating and pledged that the Quebec government would work with Indigenous leaders to implement the recommendations.
The inquiry was convened in December 2016 to look into how Indigenous people are treated by the police, the province’s youth protection agency, health and social services as well as the justice and correctional systems.
It came amid mounting pressure on the Liberal government of the day to act after women came forward to Radio-Canada’s investigative program “Enquete” to denounce misconduct by police in Val d’Or.
Legault saluted those women’s “courage” in his speech and noted that the Viens report found Indigenous women were disproportionately victims of discrimination.
“These apologies are necessary,” he said. “It’s very important, but it’s not enough. We must understand the reasons that led to this situation and, from there, we must change things.”
He said all human beings have a right to dignity. “The Quebec government is not doing enough, and this situation is unbecoming to Quebec society,” Legault told the legislature.
The group Quebec Native Women, which had criticized the lack of specific measures aimed at women in the Viens report, expressed the hoped the province would move on the issue.
“It’s easy to apologize, but we need clear commitments, written, formal, so that we can take action,” executive director Viviane Michel said.
Grand Chief Verna Polson of the Algonquin Anishinabeg Nation decried the absence of an English message from the premier. Viens’ report identified a failure by Quebec officials to communicate in a language spoken by Indigenous communities, which after their own languages is often English.
“When I heard this all in French, it was kind of upsetting,” Polson said, adding that she is still ready to meet with the province.
“We’ve been ready for many, many years to work with the government and now, with this announcement today, we’ll see how far it’ll go,” Polson said. “I’m always hopeful that this will continue to work, open the doors and the women, they need their justice. We’re always going to talk about it, we’re always going to push for it.”
Ghislain Picard, chief of the Assembly of First Nations for Quebec and Labrador, called the situation urgent and said First Nations will push the government to end discriminatory practices in its public services, as outlined by the Viens report.
Legault echoed Viens that part of the work will be to root out ignorance surrounding the reality of Indigenous communities.
“There are too many stereotypes still about aboriginal people,” he said. “We must learn to know each other better, to appreciate each other better, to get closer.”
The Quebec government has convened a meeting of First Nations and Inuit leaders on Oct. 17 to discuss further action.