Troubling 'pattern' emerges of Indigenous children treated in Quebec hospitals, never to return home

A growing number of Indigenous people in Quebec are coming forward with painful stories of how their children never returned home after being treated in hospital.

MMIWG commissioner mulls possible link to Sixties Scoop, looks to province for answers

Michele Audette said she will use the powers handed to her as a MMIWG commissioner to seek answers from the Quebec government about what happened to children in the 1950s and '60s under government care. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

A growing number of Indigenous people in Quebec are coming forward with painful stories, from decades ago, of how their children never returned home after being treated in hospital, says Michèle​ Audette, a commissioner at the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

Audette says a "pattern" has emerged from the testimony this week in Montreal and late last year during a round of hearings on Quebec's North Shore.

"We've heard so many in private and in public hearings, families telling us that they thought it was an isolated situation, that it happened only to them," she told CBC News.

Audette said she will use the powers handed to her as commissioner to seek answers from the Quebec government about what happened to children in the 1950s and '60s under government care.  

"Of course, after looking at all the documents that we will subpoena, we'll see if there might be a link with the Sixties Scoop," she said. "All those questions are very much in our mind." 

A spokesperson for Quebec's minister for Indigenous affairs said in a statement the province would await the inquiry's final report before commenting.

Airlifted to hospital, then gone

Earlier this week, Françoise Ruperthouse told the inquiry she still doesn't know what happened to two of her siblings in the 1950s after, on separate occasions, they were airlifted from a community north of Val-d'Or to the hospital in Alma, Que., for treatment.

Ruperthouse discovered only later that her brother died five years after he was taken, in a hospital in Baie-St-Paul. Her sister, Emily, wasn't seen again for 30 years. She died in 2000. 

At the hearings in Mani-Utenam, Que., last November, families described how at least eight children disappeared from the small Innu community in the 1970s under similar circumstances.

Last year, Radio-Canada's investigative program Enquête also detailed cases of Atikamekw children on Quebec's North Shore who were sent to hospital by float plane in the 1960s and '70s without their parents.

Suzanne Awashish, pictured with her daughter, remembers her brother Marcel being taken to a hospital in Amos, Que. as a child after breaking his arm. He disappeared for years. When Marcel was finally found, he only spoke English. (Alphonse Mondello/Radio-Canada)

Some disappeared, placed with white families without their parents' consent.

Audette said the provincial government will be forced to provide answers about these events.

"Those hearings that we're having will be very, very important to build that proof and very important, also, to see how the Quebec government will respond to this," she said.

Reflecting on the week of testimony, Audette also noted how many of the cases involved problems with Indigenous police forces.

In many cases, she said, women subject to violence have few places to turn due to the lack of resources available in remote Quebec communities.

Focus on survivors, not institutions

Testimony this week in Montreal has ranged from stories of personal triumph over domestic violence and alcoholism to tales of families still grappling with the disappearance of a loved one.

The personal, highly emotional testimonies have often run more than two hours, with only a short period left for questions from commissioners at the end.

Critics, including some Assembly of First Nations chiefs, have argued the inquiry is too focused on hearing from families and survivors, rather than supplying concrete solutions.

There is also a concern that the inquiry has not done enough to study the conduct of police and institutional racism. 

Retired Superior Court justice Jacques Viens is overseeing the provincial commission into the treatment of Indigenous people in Quebec. (Vincent Desjardins/Radio-Canada)

The inquiry recently asked for a two-year extension, until Dec. 31, 2020.

Its focus on survivors, rather than institutions, is in contrast to another public inquiry underway currently in Quebec. 

The Viens commission, as it's known, is tasked with looking into the Quebec government's treatment of Indigenous people.

Audette said the two inquiries are complementary, but not comparable, pointing out that the provincial commission is limited to six government sectors over a 15-year period. 

"We're dealing with 500 years of colonialism," she said.

Audette said the initial focus on survivors is by design and that, after building up a case through individual testimony, the inquiry will be able to hold government accountable.

"I'm very satisfied by the work we've been doing. It wasn't easy. I won't lie to you. It's an approach that we took collectively," she said.

"This inquiry, on a personal level, I believe that it's a tool that will help us enhance our quality of life."

About the Author

Benjamin Shingler

Journalist

Benjamin Shingler covers politics, immigration and social issues for CBC Montreal. Follow him on Twitter @benshingler.