A Crown prosecutor has told family members who have been seeking justice for 40 years following the drowning deaths of five Indigenous people from Manawan, Que., that provincial police don't have enough evidence to lay charges.

Yan Vachon, who shared the decision with the families Thursday during their meeting at a hall in Saint-Michel-des-Saints, said there won't be charges despite recent police efforts to gather more information. 

Provincial police decided to take a closer look at the case last year, after pressure from families and an association that works with relatives of people who are missing or murdered.

In 1977, the five, all from the Atikamekw community of Manawan, drowned when a van skidded off the road into the Milieu River, near Saint-Michel-des-Saints, a town about 170 kilometres north of Montreal.

The five are:

  • Lionel Petiquay, 19.
  • Marie-Juliana Quitich, 24.
  • Marie-Nicole Petiquay, 15.
  • Thérèse Flamand, 34.
  • Denis Petiquay, 18.

Two non-Indigenous men — the driver and his friend — both survived.

Local police declared the crash an accident, but a report obtained last year from the Quebec national archives revealed the coroner believed a crime had taken place.

In a written statement included in the report, the driver admitted to drinking 18 beers the day leading up to the crash.

He also wrote that he did not feel that he was impaired.

The survivors said that an hour after the crash, they lit a fire and waited until sunrise before walking 19 kilometres to warn police in Saint-Michel-des-Saints.

But before they arrived, they stopped for a coffee.

Dream catcher

A dream catcher honours the five people who drowned in 1977 when a van careened off the road into the rivière du Milieu, north of Saint-Michel-des-Saints. (Jaela Bernstien/CBC)

Case reopened after pressure from families

Last year, six investigators were assigned to speak with witnesses and gather more information, before handing over any new evidence to prosecutors. 

The move from provincial police came after pressure from families and advocates who argued the justice system had failed to thoroughly investigate the deaths.

Nancy Roy, general director of the ​Association des familles de personnes assassinées ou disparues, spoke to CBC before Thursday's meeting.

"If it was the death of five white girls … I don't think we would've had the same treatment by the justice system," she said.

"It's been two years that we've been working on this to get justice to help them turn the page."

With files from Radio-Canada's Francis Labbé