Drowning deaths of 5 aboriginal people in Manawan come to light 39 years later

On the night of June 25, 1977, a van carrying five aboriginal people and two white men skidded off the road and into the Milieu River near the town of Saint-Michel-des-Saints.

Documents show what was deemed a road accident was actually far worse

Members of the Atikamekw community of Manawan are still haunted by the drowning deaths of five of their members 39 years ago. (Radio-Canada)

On the night of June 25, 1977, a van carrying five aboriginal people and two white men skidded off the road and into the Milieu River near the town of Saint-Michel-des-Saints.

The five aboriginal people drowned. The white men survived.

It still haunts the Atikamekw community of Manawan in the Lanaudière region, 250 kilometres north of Montreal.

"It's as if it happened yesterday," said Angèle Petiquay, who lost her 18 year old brother Denis that day. "The pain is still there."

The Milieu River, near the town of Saint-Michel-des-Saints. (Radio-Canada)

At the time, the community didn't learn about their deaths from the Sûreté du Québec, but from children who went from house to house with the news. Local police eventually filed it as an accident.

They've waited for answers until last fall, when a community member asked an association of families of missing people to investigate. The coroner's report of the event, obtained from the Quebec national archives, has revealed troubling facts.

In a written statement, the driver of the van admitted to drinking 18 beers that day. The two survivors said they climbed on the roof of the van and swam to shore.

They said they lit a fire an hour later, and waited until sunrise before walking 19 kilometres to warn police in Saint-Michel-des-Saints.

But they stopped for a coffee before.

The coroner wrote the driver was impaired and called it a crime. But no charges were laid.

Angèle Petiquay, the sister of one of the drowning victims, lays an offering at his gravestone. (Radio-Canada)

"Stop for a coffee? What is this? I'm sorry, but a declaration like that is inexcusable," Petiquay said.

The coroner concluded the five people died by drowning, but no autopsy was performed.

The community is also outraged they never got a visit from an investigator following the deaths.

Coroner's report missing substance

Both survivors and the police officers mentioned in the report are still alive. But a lawyer and criminologist says it's unlikely new charges will be laid. For one, the details in the report are too vague to justify charges.

"The blood alcohol content was not measured and the exact moment of consumption wasn't recorded," said lawyer Walid Hizaji. "It will be hard, so many years later, to establish the driver's alcohol level."

"What we read in the coroner's report is tragic, but could have happened to anyone. This appears to be an accident. It's sad, of course, but an accident," Hizaki added.

SQ officers say they have recently handed the case to a Crown prosecutor. The investigation is still considered open and investigators are asking anyone who wants to make a statement to come forward.

The Association des familles de personnes assassinées ou disparues, however, wonders why police did not collect this evidence for 39 years.

"Now imagine that five white girls had lost their lives in a road accident and the two drivers were indigenous people. Would we have had the same conclusions? Would we have seen the same effort by the police? That I'm not certain," said Nancy Roy, lawyer and director-general of the association.

Based on a report by Radio-Canada's Francis Labbé