The fight against racism is a long-term effort in Val-d’Or, Quebec.


When the outgoing mayor of Val-d’Or, Pierre Corbeil, first moved to the Abitibi region in the late 1970s as a young dentist, he was not allowed to treat the Anishinaabe who lived only 30 kilometers from rue Lac Simon.

Under Indian Act rules, residents of Lac Simon only had access to a traveling dentist with a mobile clinic once a month.

“Just to give you an idea of ​​the intensity of the isolation reflex – almost confinement – at the time,” Corbeil said.

Today, on the eve of his retirement after 33 years in municipal and provincial politics, he says significant progress has been made in improving dialogue and addressing some of the issues of racism and discrimination that have been highlighted in 2015.

It was then that several Indigenous women filed a complaint for discrimination and sexual abuse by the Val-d’Or detachment of the Sûreté du Québec, plunging the mining town 600 kilometers north of Montreal into an unprecedented crisis.

It led to the boycott of Val-d’Or by the surrounding Cree and Anishinaabe communities who live, work or shop there.

Corbeil considers the 2015 crisis to be a defining moment in his tenure as mayor.

We had to reestablish communication.– Pierre Corbeil, outgoing mayor of Val d’Or

“We had to restore communication to a high level,” he said.

The city has made awareness training available – and mandatory – for elected officials, put in place an action plan and formed a committee that includes leaders of indigenous and other minority communities, police and municipal officials.

Part of the action plan is to address some of the social issues caused by the legacy of residential schools, such as homelessness and drug addiction.

The city has also created an anonymous hotline where people can report experiences of discrimination and has joined the International Coalition of Inclusive and Sustainable Cities, created by UNESCO to help local authorities fight discrimination.

The outgoing mayor of Val-d’Or, Pierre Corbeil, on the left, receives an Anishinaabe drum from the hands of Oscar Kistabish, president of the Native Friendship Center of Val-d’Or during the last meeting of the municipal council of Corbeil October 4. (Marc-André Landry / Radio-Canada)

“I think the openness and dialogue are well underway,” Corbeil said. He says the work must and will continue with the new mayor and the new city council who will be chosen in the municipal elections on November 7.

One of the main Indigenous partners in these efforts is the Val-d’Or Native Friendship Center, which has been in existence for nearly 50 years.

Édith Cloutier, director general of the center, says there have been notable improvements in collaborations and communication with city authorities, as well as with certain public entities such as health and social services, public security and even the police.

“Like a roller coaster ride”: Cloutier

But she says more work is needed at the citizen-to-citizen level.

“The relationship between the Aboriginals and the other citizens of Val-d’Or … It’s like a roller coaster ride,” said Cloutier.

She adds that there are still too many misunderstandings about the roots of Indigenous homelessness and too much discrimination against Indigenous peoples trying to find housing in the city.

Édith Cloutier is Executive Director of the Val-d’Or Native Friendship Center. (Marika Wheeler / CBC)

“We have our challenges in terms of building positive relationships at different levels,” she said, adding that she would look to the next city council and the new mayor to continue fighting racism and discrimination and to build bridges.

“It’s an ongoing relationship that needs to be nurtured if we are to continue to move forward in a positive way,” said Cloutier.

Lloyd Polson, a Lac Simon resident who works in Val-d’Or, says incidents of racism and discrimination have declined since the 2015 crisis.

Although Polson says he has not been the target of racism, he believes that Indigenous people struggling with homelessness or drug addiction are still targets of police and others.

Lloyd Polson lives in Lac Simon and works in Val-d’Or. He says incidents of racism in Val-d’Or have decreased since 2015. (Marika Wheeler / CBC)

“A few months after the allegations (against the SQ) there was a lot of racism, but personally I didn’t experience it,” Polson said. He says that from what he has heard it is different for aboriginal people who are struggling with drug addiction.

“For those who drink, for these people, maybe they [are targeted for] racism.”

Candidates for mayor

The two candidates who are running to replace Corbeil for mayor say they are determined to continue the work he has started.

“I want to continue because it’s the way to work, to be open, to participate and to encourage the relationship,” said Céline Brindamour, who has 25 years in politics, including several years as an assistant to the Town’s mayor. Over the years, she has collaborated with the Friendship Center on several projects.

She says there have been a lot of improvements in relations with Indigenous communities since 2015 and that she wants to continue moving issues forward with a community approach.

The other candidate for mayor is Léandre Gervais, a retired engineer who has a mandate as a municipal councilor.

“I am totally against racism,” Gervais said. “I am very friends with the Cree and the Anishinaabe.

In a debate moderated by the local chamber of commerce, Gervais said it was important to distinguish between homelessness and delinquency.

“We have homelessness, but we also have delinquency. We must report these people to the Sûreté du Québec, ”said Gervais, adding that he would like to see more mental health support for the population.

The Friendship Center and the outgoing mayor have identified a plot of land on 4th Avenue between 7th and 6th Streets, to build a 20-unit transitional housing project to help give Indigenous peoples the support they have. need to get out of roaming.

The project is called Anwatan-Miguam, which means “house of still waters” in Anishinaabe. A major hurdle for the project remains federal funding and Cloutier says she will seek renewed commitment to this project and others from the new mayor and council.

Fighting racism requires a long-term approach: Cloutier

As for fostering a better understanding between Indigenous and non-Indigenous citizens of Val-d’Or, Cloutier says she is playing the game for the long haul.

Twenty years ago, the Friendship Center opened a daycare center that offers an Anishinaabe program and has native educators. It is open to children from all walks of life.

The Val-d’Or Native Friendship Center opened the Abinodjic Miguam CPE 20 years ago. The Anishinaabe program with Indigenous educators is open to non-Indigenous and Indigenous children. (Julie Marceau / Radio-Canada)

“Non-native kids mix with native kids,” Cloutier said.

Now, 20 years later, those first youngsters are young adults who have been exposed to the real culture and language of the country, 6,000 years old, Cloutier said.

These are the businessmen, owners and healthcare providers of tomorrow, she added.

“These are long-term actions that bring about a societal transformation in a city like Val-d’Or,” said Cloutier.

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