MONTREAL — The leaders of Quebec's aboriginal communities demanded on Tuesday to meet immediately with the Quebec premier to discuss allegations of abuse against native women by provincial police officers.
Ghislain Picard, chief of the Assembly of the First Nations of Quebec and Labrador told reporters he gave Premier Philippe Couillard 24 hours to meet the province's native chiefs.
Picard told a news conference that Val d'Or, the town where the abuse allegedly occurred, "is in crisis" and that First Nations communities no longer have confidence in the country's police forces.
"The first person responsible for this crisis in Val d'Or is the premier of Quebec,'' Picard told reporters Tuesday in Val d'Or after a meeting with native leaders from across the province. "We ask that premier Couillard makes himself available within 24 hours for a meeting with the leaders of First Nations in Quebec and Labrador and he doesn't have the choice."
The chief was reacting to a recent news report by Radio-Canada which broadcast interviews with various women who accused provincial police officers of assault and abuse of power over a period going back several years in the town located 525 kilometres northwest of Montreal.
The investigation has been transferred to the Montreal police force and the Quebec government said it added an "independent observer" who will oversee the force's work on the file.
Couillard's spokesman, Harold Fortin, was noncommittal in his response Tuesday evening to Picard's demands.
"The premier has always maintained a respectful tone in his exchanges with the leaders of First Nations communities," Fortin responded by email. "In a nation-to-nation relationship, it's important to maintain this approach."
Fortin added that on top of transferring the investigation to the Montreal police and the addition of the independent observer, "two ministers travelled to Val d'Or Sunday and (Tuesday) and they announced measures to support the immediate needs of the situation."
Police said last week there have been 14 allegations involving nine police officers, one whom has died. Two of the allegations are sexual in nature and others involve alleged assault.
The eight accused in the case have been suspended but many of the 56 members of the provincial police in the region say they feel scapegoated after the allegations came to light and say their spouses and children are also being affected.
There were reports local officers have been calling in sick in protest after news broke that their colleagues were suspended.
Picard said several other demands were unanimously agreed to by all the representatives in attendance.
He called for more support for the women who have come forward and for any others who might choose to do so.
Picard said chiefs also want the investigation into the eight officers to be transferred to an independent body and out of the hands of the Montreal police force.
"The trust has broken between our communities and police forces,'' he said. "Whether it be the provincial police, the Montreal police force or even the RCMP."
In Montreal on Tuesday, Couillard defended Public Security minister Lise Theriault's handling of the file and deflected criticism from police officers that she didn't do enough to back them up.
The opposition Parti Quebecois called on Theriault to resign due to the fact that when her office first heard of the accusations several months ago, she conferred the investigation to the same police force whose officers stood accused in the case.
Theriault said in the Quebec legislature Tuesday that the Radio-Canada report brought new information to light and after learning about the new accusations she transferred the investigation to the Montreal force.
The Quebec government passed a law in May 2013 creating an independent body to investigate serious complaints against police officers but authorities say it'll only be up and running in April.
Antonine Yaccarini, spokeswoman for the PQ, said the party "supports Mr. Picard's requests."
Picard also called on Tuesday for Prime minister-designate Justin Trudeau to open a public, national inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women within 30 days of being sworn into office.
Trudeau confirmed during the recently ended federal election campaign that he would launch the national inquiry, something outgoing Prime Minister Stephen Harper had refused to do.
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