Families of missing Indigenous children start to get answers from Quebec government

·5 min read
In the summer of 2021, families of missing children gathered on Atikamekw territory.  (Radio-Canada - image credit)
In the summer of 2021, families of missing children gathered on Atikamekw territory. (Radio-Canada - image credit)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

Decades after their children went missing after they were taken away for medical treatment and six months after a bill came into effect allowing for the release of crucial documents, some Indigenous families are finally getting some answers about what happened to their loved ones.

Bill 79, passed in June 2021, came into effect last September. It allowed Indigenous families to get information about children who went missing between the 1950s and 1990s after being taken to receive medical care.

Government researchers are searching for documents related to 55 children, according to an annual report made public Thursday.

In some cases, relatives are searching for information about the whereabouts of several children within the same family. Most cases involve children from the Attikamekw and Innu nations, born between 1933 and 1978.

Medical files of some children and even some parents have been uncovered. Nine death certificates have also been handed over to relatives.

A symbolic date

For Agathe Awashish's relatives from Opitciwan, Bill 79's implementation allowed them to locate a file, but above all, it allowed them to start healing decades of silence and pain.

Awashish, 81, doesn't remember the year, but it was summer when she said she took the train from a campsite in Oskélanéo, near Opitciwan, to give birth in Amos, Que. Her eldest child was two or three years old.

A couple of hours after giving birth, she said, she heard her baby boy wailing, and then never heard or saw him again.

The next day, someone told her he was dead. Unsure if the small coffin she saw through the window was for her son, Awashish left by train, empty-handed, with a heavy heart.

She and her husband stayed silent about it for 50 years. Their other children then spent eight years looking for answers, but their work amounted to nothing until the law came into force.

"I took steps, but it was unsuccessful," said Chantale Awashish, Agathe's daughter.

Without any answers from investigators on the file or a response from the Amos Hospital, C. Awashish said at one point, she doubted her mother's story even though it was consistent.

Once the law entered into force, the Awashish family sent a new request and received Joseph's file within a few days.

Submitted by Chantale Awashish
Submitted by Chantale Awashish

Joseph was born on Aug. 11, 1961 at 2:30 a.m. The file also shows that Joseph died of a congenital anomaly of the heart.

"It was upsetting for [my mother]. She says she has never forgotten him," C. Awashish, who attended the report's tabling in the National Assembly in Quebec, said.

On Aug. 11, she'll host a small ceremony for her mother and to commemorate Joseph.

She then plans on finding where her brother is buried and requesting an exhumation as well as a DNA test.

"The search isn't over," she said. "If it's him, we'll take him to Opitciwan and bury him with our people, his people," she said.

The report indicates that obtaining a child's medical records is often only the beginning of several other searches aimed at uncovering the circumstances of a death or identifying a burial place — which, in most cases, is unknown to the families.

"I want [my mother] to go in peace when her time comes," she said.

In Opitciwan alone, around 30 families are looking for a missing child, according to C. Awashish, who is part of an association called Awacak.

Work to do

In the report, Ian Lafrenière, the minister responsible for Indigenous affairs, notes that a lot of work has been done, but there is still more to do.

"There is still a lot of work to do, but I am very proud of this start," he said.

From the 1950s to the 1980s, dozens of Indigenous children from isolated communities were sent to hospitals in Quebec and never returned.

During the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG), some families testified about the disappearances of loved ones. Others also confided in former Radio-Canada journalist Anne Panasuk, who since last year has become a special advisor to Indigenous families seeking closure.

Delphine Jung/Radio-Canada
Delphine Jung/Radio-Canada

But many families haven't started looking for missing relatives.

According to the report, significant awareness and communication work remains to be done with First Nations, and particularly the Crees, Inuit and Naskapi.

The report also shows that among older children who perished, two of them died while attending residential schools.

The law aims to make certain information held by institutions, public bodies and religious congregations accessible to families and shed light on the circumstances of the disappearance or death of a child.

According to the report, families want to speak with medical experts to fully assess the information they receive.

"This need reflects the necessary bond of trust to forge with the information obtained and the partner institutions, in order to continue the journey towards truth and healing," the report reads.

Ten general practitioners or specialists who are of First Nations or who have experience working with Indigenous families have already expressed their willingness to support those seeking consultation.

The monitoring committee has also already made three recommendations in the report. Namely, it suggests setting up a uniform way of archiving information collected to respect confidentiality, developing an information management protocol and preserving the information.

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools, and those who are triggered by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

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