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Quebec police watchdog lacks transparency when investigating officers: report

MONTREAL — Quebec's police watchdog is unacceptably opaque and suffers from shortcomings that undermine its credibility when it comes to investigating complaints by Indigenous people against police, a report by an independent observer has found.

In a report made public on Thursday, Fannie Lafontaine wrote that while there has been progress in how investigations have been conducted, the lack of transparency at the Bureau des enquetes independantes (BEI) risks undermining public confidence. 

Lafontaine, a lawyer and professor, was asked to observe how police investigate allegations against fellow officers after a number of Indigenous women came forward in 2015 to denounce alleged sexual assault and other forms of abuse by police in the mining city of Val-d'Or.

"While investigations of police officers when the victim is Indigenous have undergone positive changes since the 'Val-d’Or crisis' of 2015, the system put in place through the BEI still suffers from serious shortcomings that are likely to undermine its legitimacy and lastingly affect public confidence in it," she wrote.

"BEI is unacceptably opaque and unrepresentative."

However, Lafontaine noted that the institution is young and still has the chance to become a leader in Canada for how such investigations are conducted.

The report found the BEI, which took over handling such complaints in 2016, lacks Indigenous representation and does not commit to a timeline for completing its investigations into sexual assault allegations against a police officer.

"Such reluctance is surprising, inasmuch as investigation speed is essential, particularly in the case of sexual allegations, since once the victim feels ready to begin the reporting process, it is important to act quickly," she wrote. 

Lafontaine's mandate was originally to investigate the practices of the Montreal police, which was tasked with investigating complaints against officers before the responsibility was transferred to the watchdog.

In her report, she generally praised the force's efforts, finding that Montreal police conducted "serious and exhaustive investigations" within a reasonable time frame and treated victims in a courteous and respectful manner.

She was far more critical when it came to the BEI, which she described as having "one of the worst records in Canada" when it comes to transparency.

She said the organization releases few details on its investigations, and as one of her 25 recommendations she suggested that it be required to submit detailed summaries.

"A detailed resume of the investigations carried out by the BEI would allow the population to understand the facts surrounding the police intervention, to understand the methods used to discover the truth, to appreciate the thoroughness and quality of the investigation and finally, to better understand the decision not to press charges," the report read.

Lafontaine also noted the Crown prosecutor's office takes an average of over nine months to decide whether to press charges against officers, leaving victims in limbo.

Since the 2015 Val-d'Or accusations, almost 200 investigations have been opened into allegations of police misconduct towards Indigenous people in Quebec, demonstrating "the extent of the problem of police violence against Indigenous peoples and the urgency of providing guarantees of integrity and impartiality that can give Indigenous peoples confidence in investigations concerning police conduct," she wrote.

At a news conference on Friday, Quebec Public Security Minister Genevieve Guilbault thanked Lafontaine for her work on the file and said the work of fighting racism and discrimination within the police had already begun.

"There are always ways to improve the work methods of our police officers," she said in Quebec City, adding she was pleased with the conclusions regarding Montreal police.

Guilbault said the watchdog already has a liaison officer to help communicate with Indigenous communities and has been actively looking to recruit an Indigenous investigator to its team.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct 16, 2020

Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press

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