Missing Indigenous Children: Behind the Scenes of a Colossal Quest

Brief glimpse behind the scenes of a quest for restorative virtues.

Friday April 29, 2022: a small plane lands at Saint-Augustin airport which adjoins Pakuashipi. This Innu community of 300 inhabitants on the Lower North Shore (550 km from Sept-Îles) is not accessible by road.

This is where former journalist Anne Panasuk’s investigation began in 2014.

Innu who have lost children, and who have been left unanswered for decades, have decided to put their case in the public square in order to find answers and try to heal the sadness, doubt and guilt that gnaws at them.

From now on, Anne Panasuk is special adviser to the Quebec Minister responsible for Aboriginal Affairs Ian Lafrenière. And she accompanies the latter who comes to present the research report to the community.

There are also native representatives on the plane, including those of the Awacak Association, which represents families, the Human Rights Commission, as well as representatives of opposition parties in Quebec.

A moment which, we guess, will have been charged with emotions.

It was touching to talk to them. They received us in an incredible way with a buffet of crab, lobster, salmon and shrimp. There were drum songs and at the end we all danced the makushamsays Anne Panasuk on the phone.

The women were saying, “Look at us so you can put a face to every case.” »

A quote from Anne Panasuk
About twenty people pose for the photo,

A group photo in Pakuashipi during the presentation of the first report on the research work carried out in the wake of the adoption of Bill 79.

Photo: Courtesy Judith Toupin

In order to respect the medicine wheel, the Awacak association had requested that the first report be filed with the guardians of the East Gate: the Innus of Pakuashipi.

Cultural security is in particular this: we went there according to their protocol, not according to ours.adds Minister Lafrenière, who points out that this type of report is usually tabled and debated in the National Assembly before being made public.

Increase in the number of open files

The report, which summarizes the first six months of tracing since the passage of Bill 79, reported the opening of 55 files for the tracing of children. But since its publication last Thursday, the figure has risen to 60 and will reach 64 child files in the coming days.

Behind each file, there are relatives who question themselves because they have not received a death certificate, have not been able to see the body of their deceased child or read his medical file. To the point of wondering for some, since it has already happened, if their child would not have been stolen to be given up for adoption elsewhere.

It’s more than neglect, it’s abandonment. We were treated like animals. They took the children of our parents as if they took the children of a dog. »

A quote from Françoise Ruperthouse, CEO of Awacak

After much research to find her brother Tony and her sister Emily, she and her family learned that Tony had died in hospital a few years after the official date of death. Emily was found some 30 years later, severely disabled, although she was a healthy child when she was sent to Amos hospital before disappearing.

Francoise Ruperthouse.

Originally from Pikogan, the Anishinabée Françoise Ruperthouse directs the Awacak association (which means “little beings of light” in Atikamekw).

Photo: Facebook/Françoise Ruperthouse

Stories like hers, Ms. Ruperthouse and her team members hear many as they tour communities. They have all received training in the legal aspects of the law, but also in psychology and active listening.

Each time, the families tell us that it feels good to talk about it. It hurts, it arouses anger and sadness, but it freesshe says.

A network of doctors and nurses is also being set up to help families analyze the medical information received and support them emotionally.

Françoise Ruperthouse highlights the work of the Family Support Department, the monitoring committee and the law firm that supports the association.

Soon, we will be visiting the Atikamekw, so we should soon reach 100 open files. It is a long work which will take several years, perhaps ten, but which is necessary in order to find answers and help to heal.according to her.

Having access to files, even today, is something difficult for ordinary mortals. But Law 79 allows undo all the little locks first to find the documents and then to be able to give them to the Aboriginal families, explains Minister Ian Lafrenière. It emphasizes the work incredible of the various partners involved.

Ian Lafrenière addresses the media.

Ian Lafrenière, Minister responsible for Indigenous Affairs of Quebec, during a press conference held on September 29, 2021.

Photo: Radio-Canada / Sylvain Roy Roussel

And there are dozens of partners, because correcting the mistakes of the past requires involving a lot of people. We realize this by reading the report of the follow-up committee unveiled last week.

Real painstaking work

After the parliamentary work to adopt Bill 79, it was necessary to organize tours in the sometimes remote communities, often with a translator, in order to explain the process in progress to the various Aboriginal leaders and stakeholders. But above all to listen to the families, explain to them the steps to follow and help them fill out the forms.

At the same time as the Ministry, the Family Support Department had to explain Law 79 to the archivists of health institutions or different religious congregations that may hold files or registers.

It is also necessary to mobilize representatives of seven departments, in addition to the Coroner’s Office, the Registrar of Civil Status, the Sûreté du Québec, the Commission d’accès à l’information, the RAMQthe public ombudsman, the federal government, the College of Physicians, not forgetting the directors of health and social services of the First Nations.

There is a lot of will, it’s nice to see that. »

A quote from Ian Lafrenière, Quebec Minister responsible for Indigenous Affairs

Ian Lafernière specifies that even if Bill 79 gives the minister the power to investigate, he has not used it for the moment, since cooperation is generally good.

Anne Panasuk in front of a library.

Anne Panasuk was a journalist at Radio-Canada for 38 years.

Photo: Patrick Lachance

Some families will want to carry out exhumations, carry out tests DNA. Others will want to repatriate the bodies for burial in their community or simply have a plaque placed where their child is currently buried.explains Anne Panasuk.

With the Awacak association, she has already planned to continue her tour in two Innu communities, but also among the Naskapis, the Atikamekw and the Anishinabés who have submitted certain requests.

We will also have to go to the Crees and the Inuit, because we realized that it was important to go to the communities and that it be done in their language., she says. The report indicates that 5 of the 11 aboriginal nations of Quebec had so far not opened a file.

The long road to reconciliation

When asked where we are on the road to reconciliation, Anne Panasuk and Ian Lafrenière remain cautious. It all depends on what you mean by reconciliation, I would rather say that we are at the stage of repairing the wrongslaunches the ex-journalist.

Before talking about reconciliation, there is a long way to go and a lot of reconciliation work to be done.adds Minister Lafrenière.

Since his swearing in as minister responsible for Aboriginal Affairs 18 months ago, he says he has visited 44 of the 55 communities present in Quebec.


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