Montreal cemetery to reopen for visits Mother's Day but families still waiting to bury dead

Jimmy Koliakoudakis says his family is being held captive by the ongoing strike. He is calling for Quebec’s political leaders to step in.  (Valeria Cori-Manocchio/CBC - image credit)
Jimmy Koliakoudakis says his family is being held captive by the ongoing strike. He is calling for Quebec’s political leaders to step in. (Valeria Cori-Manocchio/CBC - image credit)

Jimmy Koliakoudakis rides past Montreal's Notre-Dame-des-Neiges cemetery on his motorcycle nearly every day.

"I don't want my mom to think we've abandoned her," he said, holding onto the hope that the next time he passes what is supposed to be his mother's final resting place, the gates will finally be open.

When Koliakoudakis's father died in 2007, the family purchased plots for both his parents so they could be reunited. So far, that reunion has been put on hold.

Koliakoudakis's mother died in February and she has been in cold storage ever since.

While the cemetery is reopening to visitors for Mother's Day on Sunday, Koliakoudakis and many other families are still waiting and calling for an end to a strike that started last September and that has left them unable to bury their loved ones.

"We have to put our lives on hold … We're sort of on standby where we have to wait for their call," he said.

He is not the only one. According to the cemetery, families are waiting to bury 250 bodies.

The rights of the workers to strike should be respected but not at the expense of the human right to bury one's loved ones, said Koliakoudakis.

"We want to have peace and resolution as a family, some closure, but we're being held hostage."

He is calling on the government to step in and settle the dispute.

Valeria Cori-Manocchio/CBC
Valeria Cori-Manocchio/CBC

Dispute drags on

Patrick Chartrand is president of the union representing maintenance workers at the cemetery, who have been on strike since January.

He says workers want to return to work and are currently speaking with a conciliator, but management has had a take-it-or-leave-it approach to negotiations.

"For the past four years there haven't been any negotiations," he said.

According to Chartrand, management wants to freeze salaries and reduce the number of full-time staff from 62 to 47.

Éric Dufault is president of the cemetery's office workers' union, which has been on strike since September and without a contract since 2017.

He says services at the cemetery have deteriorated because there aren't enough workers, and continuous truce proposals in emergency situations like the April ice storm do not make it possible to keep the grounds in good condition.

For its part, the cemetery is blaming the unions.

"We are deeply sorry for the situation, but the strike is a decision made by unions," cemetery spokesperson Daniel Granger told CBC in a statement. "We have invited our union to help management to bury some of the deceased to help bereaved families, but the union leaders have declined."

The cemetery — the largest in Canada — has been involved in multiple labour disputes resulting in burial backlogs over the last few decades.

During labour disputes in 2007, as many as 500 bodies were left in cold storage when maintenance employees were locked out.

Valeria Cori-Manocchio/CBC
Valeria Cori-Manocchio/CBC

Gates open for Mother's Day

The cemetery will be open to visitors from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. on Sunday.

However, many areas of the cemetery will remain off limit because of April's ice storm damage.

"Cleanup and site securement work will resume on Monday, May 15, and the site will again be closed to visitors in the following weeks," said Granger.

The cemetery is asking visitors to exercise caution when visiting.

At least three-quarters of its trees have suffered damage, with broken branches posing a threat to safety, while about 100 mature trees will need to be felled for safety reasons, according to the cemetery.

Quebec, Montreal, call for resolution 

On Tuesday, Quebec Labour Minister Jean Boulet said he had named two experienced mediators to help find a resolution before Mother's Day on Sunday.

"We have to make sure that grieving families can gather at the cemetery and the employer takes the steps to make it happen," said Boulet.

Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante echoed the labour minister's call for the parties to find a compromise before Mother's Day.

"People want to go and see their loved ones that passed away," Plante said on Wednesday before the reopening was announced. "I'm really encouraging both parties to talk and find an agreement."