Missing or Dead Indigenous Children | “She never forgot”

Families are beginning to collect information about the disappearance or death of Aboriginal children thanks to the passage of a new provincial law.

Posted at 5:00 am

TEXT: Fanny Levesque

TEXT: Fanny Levesque
The press

PHOTOS: Olivier Jean

PHOTOS: Olivier Jean
The press

(Roberval) Agathe Awashish touches her heart and whispers a few words in Atikamekw. “She says she feels light here,” her daughter Chantale translates, showing the center of her chest.

At the age of 81, the indigenous elder finally discovers the beginning of the truth about the birth of her son Joseph, who was born in 1961 at Amos Hospital. The Awashish have just received the first official documents, which partially lift the veil on the circumstances of the little one’s birth and his final moments.

The Opiticiwan family in Haute-Mauricie is one of the first to find some answers under the new A law authorizing the transfer of personal data to the families of Aboriginal children who have disappeared or died after being placed in an institution, which came into force in September. It will have taken barely six months to find the pieces of an incomplete puzzle that Mme Flooded for 60 years.


PHOTO OLIVIER JEAN, THE PRESS

Chantale Awashish and her mother Agathe

“She never forgot,” drops Chantale, installed near her mother. The eldest nods in her rocking chair. Very pregnant, Agathe Awashish took the train from Oskélanéo forest camp south of Opiticiwan, where her husband was a lumberjack, to give birth to their second child in Amos. It was the summer of 1961. She doesn’t know the date.

She gives birth at night but leaves empty-armed. That’s about all she’ll know. It could have been explained to her that her child had died the morning after she was born. She, who didn’t understand French, could never hug her baby or see her little remains.


PHOTO OLIVIER JEAN, THE PRESS

Agathe Avashish

An image will come to mind of a nurse carrying a coffin down the hospital corridor. Was your baby inside? How did Joseph die? Where was his body buried? She won’t know to this day, and again. The portrait is not complete. “The only memory she has of her baby is crying,” Chantale Awashish sums up quietly.

One case among many

According to recent estimates, at least 200 Indigenous children have disappeared or died after being admitted to health facilities in Quebec. Cases have been reported since the 1940s and through the late 1970s.


PHOTO OLIVIER JEAN, THE PRESS

Agathe Avashish

The story is almost always the same: a child became ill and was sent out of the community for treatment and never returned. Families were left in complete darkness. In the case of births, the parents were informed of the death without being able to see the corpse, as was the case with Joseph.

The Act (Bill 79) now allows family members access to personal information “likely to reveal the circumstances surrounding the disappearance or death of an Aboriginal child”. For example, a brother or sister can request access to the missing child’s medical records, which was previously not possible. This is what Chantale Awashish did on behalf of her mother to help her find the truth.

Quebec also created the Family Support Department, a small team that accompanies and supports families in their research. The work is also being carried out in collaboration with the Awakak Group, a multi-bereaved organization supported by a special adviser, former journalist Anne Panasuk. Even after her journalistic research in 2017, Agathe Awashish goes into the circumstances of Joseph’s birth for the first time.

“For years she was in silence, in her pain,” says Chantale, who therefore only found out about her brother’s existence at this point. “After that, I never gave up. I made file requests, but nothing moved,” recalls the Atikamekw, who is also involved in Awakak.

[Quand la loi est entrée en vigueur], I was asked if they wanted us to take my mother’s file first. They know she is old and chronically ill.

Chantale Awashish


PHOTO OLIVIER JEAN, THE PRESS

Agathe Awashish and her daughter Suzanne

The father of the Awashish family, who had seven children, died in 2004 without knowing what happened to Joseph. “My father, when he heard the train whistle, he went to the station to greet my mother. When she came down she didn’t have a baby…I spent a long time imagining the faces of my father and mother at that moment. They suffered a lot and later I understood this suffering,” says her daughter.

“One step towards recovery”

In September, Chantale Awashish completes the official documents to begin the search. Despite some setbacks – his mother’s medical records go missing – the teams get their hands on medical records against Joseph. According to the birth register of the Hôtel-Dieu d’Amos, Joseph Awashish was born on August 11, 1961 at 2:30 am.


PHOTO OLIVIER JEAN, THE PRESS

Chantale Awashish

My mother now knows her boy’s date of birth. The date alone is a step towards healing.

Chantale Awashish

When the information to Mr.me Awashish was particularly emotional. ” She cried. Relief, but also sadness. The minister responsible for indigenous affairs, Ian Lafrenière, was invited to participate virtually in this very intimate exchange. “It was extremely moving,” he said in an interview on request The press. “It was heartbreaking because on the one hand you’re happy that there’s a concrete result thanks to the law, but at the same time it hits you in the face as a society that this woman, this mother there, she’s waited 60 years to come up with such fundamental answers.” to have. It is unimaginable,” the minister continues.


PHOTO BERNARD BRAULT, PRESS ARCHIVE

Ian Lafrenière, Minister for Indigenous Affairs

The Family Support Division of the Secretariat for Indigenous Affairs is currently working with 36 families to investigate the circumstances surrounding the death or disappearance of 58 children. In the text of the law, the minister had to submit an initial report on the application of the law by March 31, 2022. Mr. Lafrenière confirmed that the submission has to be done by the end of April and that the government would like to do it collectively.

Outstanding Questions

But the discovery of initial information about Joseph Awashish also raises some questions. According to the documents found, the health of the newborn deteriorated rapidly. He was diagnosed with a congenital heart defect and died shortly thereafter. An autopsy would not have been performed. Continued investigations by the Family Support Department lead to the archives of Christ-Roy Parish in Amos, which confirm that the child’s body was buried on 12 August 1961 in the local cemetery. According to the family, Amos Cemetery recently confirmed the existence of a grave in which Aboriginal children who died between 1950 and 1976 are buried, but despite this confirmation, Joseph Awashish’s name does not appear in the registers.


PHOTO OLIVIER JEAN, THE PRESS

Chantale Awashish

“I still have a question mark […] is he really dead asks Chantale. Even his mother, who has never seen her son’s body, doubts it. This is a legitimate concern since Joseph’s death comes as the Sixties Scoop rages on in the West. In conversation with The press in September, Attorney Alain Arsenault, Awacak’s legal advisor, reported that in some cases “indications” actually point to the same modus operandi as that used in the raid that kidnapped children to be adopted in Canada and the United States.

The Supplemental Kepek-Québec Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women in Canada also addresses this issue. “Witnesses believe the babies were taken for medical experiments or for sale to non-native families.”


PHOTO OLIVIER JEAN, THE PRESS

Agathe Avashish

“We’re going on, we want to go on,” says Mme flooded. The search into Joseph’s case is ongoing, although collaboration with the Family Support Department continues.

The family are also considering filing a request for exhumation when they receive the exact location of little Joseph’s burial. The law allows the minister to accompany a family in their “steps related to an application to the Supreme Court for an exhumation order.”

Meanwhile, when the snow is gone, Chantale promises to take her mother to Amos Cemetery. The Awashish clan will also celebrate Joseph’s birthday for the first time this year.

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