Indigenous families press for change in Quebec through MMWIG inquiry action plan

·4 min read
Manon Ottawa made her way to Trois-Rivières to take part in the march honouring her niece, Joyce Echaquan. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Manon Ottawa made her way to Trois-Rivières to take part in the march honouring her niece, Joyce Echaquan. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Manon Ottawa found herself outside Saint-Jean-de-Brébeuf Church in Manawan, Que., this week, propelled by an urge to count.

"I'm counting the shoes," the Atikamekw woman said.

Like elsewhere in Indigenous communities across Canada, the people of Manawan, 250 kilometres north of Montreal, wanted to pay tribute to the 215 children whose remains were found in an unmarked burial site at a residential school in Kamloops, B.C.

As Ottawa counted, the federal government was unveiling its response to the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG)

A plan meant for survivors like Ottawa.

What happened to Maxime?

In March 2018, she and her family made their way to Montreal, to take part in the MMIWG hearings.

Ottawa listened as her Aunt Cécile began the story of their family's trauma, speaking in Atikamekw.

"Hello. My little brother Maxime was … You could say lost, because he got sick," Cécile Otttawa began that day.

Six-month-old Maxime was not an isolated case. The MMIWG as well as Quebec's Viens commission heard testimony from family after family about Indigenous children who disappeared or died after being brought to provincial institutions for health care.

"I didn't know about my Uncle Maxime until a little before my father's death," Manon Ottawa told CBC. "He asked me to do some research to try and find out what happened to his brother."

Ottawa considers the MMIWG action plan to be vague, and wonders why there wasn't a section specific to Quebec. In addition to the MMWIG's final report tabled in 2019, the inquiry released a 175-page supplementary report on Quebec, with 21 province-specific recommendations.

Among its plans, the federal government will give Indigenous communities more control over — and more funding for — social services.

Quebec Indigenous Affairs Minister Ian Lafrenière says the work to implement change within the province is ongoing.

"We've invested around $100 million so far to respond to recommendations," he said, at the announcement this week of an investment of $28.5 million to address domestic violence in Indigenous communities.

"Not only are we acting but we are doing it in a way that is adaptive and responds to the needs of the First Nations and we don't impose it. We want to work with them."

Ottawa says her family hopes Quebec's new law, Bill 79, which allows Indigenous families to get information about children who went missing between the 1950s and 90s, will help with their research.

The law was adopted on Thursday.

"I want the truth. I'm always on a quest for truth," Ottawa says.

But she also knows what she wants most, answers, may not be possible. The family was sent Maxime's death certificate but deep distrust in the system means they don't entirely believe the records are real.

In 2018, Manon Ottawa came to Montreal with her family to testify at the MMIWG inquiry about her uncle's disappearance.
In 2018, Manon Ottawa came to Montreal with her family to testify at the MMIWG inquiry about her uncle's disappearance.(MMIWG )

Generations of trauma

On Wednesday, Ottawa made her way to Trois-Rivières, to join the march in honour of the life of her niece, Joyce Echaquan.

Echaquan, the 37-year-old mother of seven, died last year after live streaming the abusive remarks of hospital staff in Joliette.

Ottawa says mistrust in the health-care system is deeply ingrained in the Atikamekw community, pointing to herself and her family history as one example of many.

Her uncle and her niece, suffered the same fate of dying in hospital, 60 years apart.

"It's still hard for me to go to the hospital," Ottawa said.

Last week, Quebec committed $27 million to help Indigenous communities set up special clinics for medical and social services.

It's something Ottawa applauds.

"After the death of my niece Joyce, I was thinking, it would be nice to have a pavilion set up at Joliette hospital to welcome Indigenous people, adapted for us," she said.

What is needed, she says, is an understanding of the various Indigenous cultures and languages and health care that is adapted to that.

"The generational trauma is real," Ottawa said.

"But I hope it can be fixed."

Manon Ottawa often called her niece Joyce Echaquan over Facetime to pray together.
Manon Ottawa often called her niece Joyce Echaquan over Facetime to pray together. (Submitted by Manon Ottawa)