Families reveal pain of Atikamekw children's mysterious disappearances half a century ago
Indigenous communities of Quebec's Upper Mauricie region grapple with loss
The hearings held this week into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls on Quebec's North Shore dredged up painful memories that still haunt families in the northeastern part of the province.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Atikamekw children who needed medical care were sent to the hospital by float plane without their parents.
But upon their release, some disappeared, placed with white families without their parents' consent. One of them was even declared dead when he was still very much alive.
In the Indigenous communities of Quebec's Upper Mauricie region, there are few families that haven't been affected by the disappearance of a child.
Here are three of their stories, as told to Radio-Canada's investigative program Enquête.
The Petiquay family
At the end of the 1960s, six-month-old Diane Petiquay was hospitalized in La Tuque, Que., with pneumonia.
Upon her release, instead of returning home to her parents, she was placed with a non-Indigenous family, without the consent of her parents.
"We found a document at social services," says Diane's sister, Jacinthe Petiquay.
"And the reason they gave was: parental abandonment."
Her mother, who speaks only Atikamekw, remembers signing the document, which was written in French.
"The local priest told her it was to allow her to get medical care," Petiquay said.
"But that's not the same thing at all."
When the mother went to the hospital, she was told her daughter no longer wanted to see her.
Diane Petiquay managed to make contact with her family when she was an adolescent.
She reconnected with her brothers and sisters, but it was difficult — she never learned to speak Atikamekw.
"There's something missing in me somewhere. Something missing that we will never be able to get back," Petiquay said.
The Awashish family
In the Atikamekw community of Obedjiwan, young Marcel Awashish broke his arm while playing on a metal bed.
He was sent to the hospital in Amos, Que., then disappeared for years.
"How is it possible he was found in Montreal, when all he had was a broken arm?" said his sister, Suzanne Awashish.
"We hear he was already on an adoption list. It's a good thing we found him in time. If not, he would have been lost … We would have never seen him again."
When Marcel was finally found, he only spoke English. He had lost his mother tongue, as well as his French, the second most common language among the Atikamekw.
The Echaquan family
Lauréanna Echaquan was sent to hospital in Joliette, Que., in 1973, when she was just a baby.
As she recovered, she was placed with a local family, while she waited for her parents to come and get her.
When she suddenly died, her parents made the 200 kilometre journey by bush plane, hoping to bring her body home for burial.
They believe the body they were shown was not their child, and that the subsequent burial in Joliette happened too quickly.
The family has trouble believing their girl is actually dead. Despite a death notice, Lauréanna is still on the list of registered Indians, as if she were still alive.
Forty years later, Enquête visited the cemetery in Joliette, where the child appeared to be buried — in a common grave for unclaimed bodies.
But a witness to the burial, a social worker who was there, later confirmed the parents' worst fears. Lauréanna was buried beside the cemetery in a field.
Not uncommon, expert says
At the time, there was no youth protection or social services like there is today. So who made the decisions to place children in care?
"I have never seen explicit directives," said Marie-Pierre Bousquet, director of Indigenous studies at the Université de Montréal.
"But this kind of case is quite common in these communities — and probably in the majority of Indigenous communities in Quebec."
Bousquet blames attitudes prevalent at the time.
"For a long time, Indigenous parents were viewed as primitive," she said, "as though they didn't know how to take care of their children."
Anne-Diane Béliveau, a social worker who worked in the area, said doctors and priests had a lot of power over the children's lives. But she said those people didn't necessarily understand the children's reality.
The Quebec Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs told Enquête it found no information regarding the placement of Atikamekw children dating from that era.
Translated from a report by Anne Panasuk of Radio-Canada's Enquête