4 decades after fatal crash, Quebec First Nations community may finally get answers
Quebec police set to complete investigation into the 1977 crash that killed 5
The Atikamekw community of Manawan, in the Lanaudière region, has been waiting for this moment for nearly four decades.
Quebec provincial police announced Thursday they were wrapping up their investigation into a 1977 car crash that killed five members of the community.
Two women, two men and a 15-year-old girl drowned in June of that year after the van they were in skidded off the road and ran into the Milieu River near Saint-Michel-des-Saints, 250 kilometres north of Montreal.
The driver and another passenger, who were both white, managed to escape.
"It will always be on my mind, because I miss my mother," said Antoinette Flamand. She told Radio-Canada that she was aboard the blue van that day and begged her mother to get out with her.
Flamand, who was eight at the time, was dropped off by the side of the road. She never saw her mother, Thérèse Flamand, again.
Coroner's report raises questions
A provincial support group for families of missing and murdered people — Association des familles de personnes assassinées ou disparues — has been pushing authorities to probe some of the unanswered questions about the incident.
"Why did only the two white people manage to escape?" said Nancy Roy, lawyer and director-general of the association.
Last year, Roy helped the families obtain a copy of the coroner's report. She said the families were shocked by what they read.
The report concluded the five died by drowning. But no autopsy was ever performed. The coroner also ruled the driver was impaired. But no charges were ever laid.
"They feel there are many elements that just don't fit," said Roy of the victims' families.
A coffee before the cops
In a written statement contained in the coroner's report, the driver confessed to drinking 18 beers the day of the crash. He said the other survivor was in the back seat and managed to break a window.
Both men climbed out through the back, screaming for the others to follow. Roy said the community doesn't understand why they didn't.
"One of the victims, Denis Petiquay, was an athlete, a swimmer," Roy said. "His family can't comprehend how he could have drowned."
The driver said they then swam to shore and made a fire, waiting until sunrise to walk the 19 kilometres to the town of Saint-Michel-des-Saints.
They stopped for coffee before going to police.
Sifting through 40-year-old evidence
In 2016, the families contacted provincial police and Public Security Minister Martin Coiteux, demanding a new investigation into the crash.
Roy said the families didn't receive an answer until Radio-Canada aired a report last winter that revealed the contents of the coroner's report for the first time.
The Sûreté du Québec reopened the case in March. They met with the community on Thursday, saying the investigation will be completed in the next few days.
"We used satellite photos taken in 1977 to recreate the scene of the crash, because the road has been diverted since then," said SQ spokesperson Guy Lapointe.
"When we are done, we will have interviewed 25 people," said Lapointe.
Police also carried out tests to estimate the driver's blood-alcohol level based on his statement.
Silver lining for families
Valérie Quitich also lost her mother, Julianna, that day. She says the community appreciates the work done by police, but isn't convinced it will lead to any arrests.
"I'm disappointed because police told us a lot of the evidence has disappeared," said Quitich.
"We still hope there will charges laid against the survivors [who are still alive] but the investigation should have been done in 1977."
Provincial police say it will hand over its report to the Crown by the end of October. The Crown will then determine whether any criminal charges will be laid.
Julianna Quitich, 24
Lionel Petiquay, 19
Denis Petiquay, 18
Thérèse Flamand, 34