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Atikamekw families demand Quebec heed calls to action, to find out what happened to missing children

Decades after their children were taken away, never to return, Atikamekw families want the Quebec government to pass dedicated legislation aimed at helping them uncover the truth. 'It's a question of human dignity," says AFNQL Chief Ghislain Picard.

Government tagged on amendment to pharmacists bill, which 'has nothing to do with … what they've gone through'

Thérèse Dubé holds up a photo of her 87-year-old mother, Delima Flammand, whose younger daughter Violetta was taken away as a newborn in 1956 and was never seen again. (Sylvain Roy Roussel/CBC)

Pierre-Paul Niquay never met his two older brothers, Paul Émile and Joseph Jean Antonio, who were born in 1957 and 1958.

They were brought to hospital for medical treatment as toddlers. They never came back to their home in Manawan, Que.

"My parents never saw their bodies, never saw a coffin," Niquay told reporters at a news conference at Quebec's National Assembly Friday.

Niquay first told his story three years ago, at the national inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG) — one of dozens of witnesses from across Quebec who described the nightmares their families had endured.

Niquay's family and 32 others from Atikamekw villages in the upper Mauricie region lost 47 children among them.

Their testimony led to specific recommendations aimed at the Quebec government.

The first was to provide families with all the information available about the missing children. The second was "to establish a commission of inquiry on the children taken from Indigenous families in Quebec."

Pierre-Paul Niquay, from Manawan, Que., says the government needs to address what happened to countless families in a dedicated piece of legislation. (Sylvain Roy Roussel)

Amendments slipped into pharmacists' reform bill

So far, the government has made no commitment to launch an inquiry. And its first attempt to provide information to the families has left them frustrated and dissatisfied.

In November, the CAQ government added amendments to Bill 31, its pharmacists' services legislation. They require provincial ministries to assist families in their searches by handing over any medical documents or death certificates that may still be in the system.

But Thérèse Dubé, whose baby sister Violetta was taken from Dubé's mother shortly after she gave birth in 1956, considers those tagged-on amendments nothing more than an afterthought.

In the case of Violetta, doctors later told her mother the newborn had died in hospital, but the death certificate the family has managed to track down doesn't make sense — and doesn't explain the cause of death.

"We want to uncover the truth," said Dubé.

"I want them to change Bill 31. We don't want it to pass as it is."

Ghislain Picard, the Quebec regional chief for the Assembly of First Nations, says he only learned of the amendments to Bill 31 when he was contacted by opposition parties.

'Question of human dignity'

"To be an accessory to a bill like 31 — which has nothing to do with the drama and the emotions that they have gone through," is a "totally inadequate" response, said Ghislain Picard, the Quebec and Labrador regional chief of the Assembly of First Nations.

"It's a question of human dignity."

The Liberal critic for Indigenous affairs, David Birnbaum, described the government's response to the families' plight as "written on the back of a napkin" — far from what retired Superior Court justice Jacques Viens called for in his report on Quebec's troubled relationship with Indigenous peoples in the province.

"One of the key injustices to be corrected is simple access to information for families who've had children taken away from them," said Birnbaum on the floor of the National Assembly Friday.

Quebec's ombudsman, Marie Rinfret, also sent letters to the government last month, expressing concern that the government "adopted certain amendments very quickly during the clause-by-clause consideration of the Bill" without public consultation with the First Nations people affected.

Quebec's minister for Indigenous affairs, Sylvie D'Amours, said including the amendments in the pharmacists bill is a way to fast-track the legislative changes the Atikamekw families are seeking. (Frédéric Bissonette/Radio-Canada)

Picard said he was only made aware of the change by opposition MNAs, who informed him after the amendments had been added.

Quebec Minister for Indigenous Affairs Sylvie D'Amours said while she may not have informed Picard, she did speak with the families concerned and with Atikamekw chiefs before introducing the amendments.

D'Amours also said the quickest way to move forward to provide answers to families was to include the necessary amendments in an existing bill.

"We have to work on our side of things, to be able to move ahead," she said.

D'Amours said it wouldn't make sense to "introduce a separate bill every time we answer one of the calls to action" named in either the Viens or MMIWG reports.

Niquay, who listened to Friday's debate from his seat in the gallery of the National Assembly, said people in Manawan have been waiting for 50 years for answers and are ready to wait a little longer, if it means things are done right.

"We are patient, perhaps too patient."

About the Author

Julia Page

Journalist

Julia Page is a radio and online journalist with CBC News, based in Quebec City.

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