Parents of Atikamekw child who drowned believe ambulance would have saved her

The parents of an eight-year-old girl who drowned last September in Manawan, Que., believe their child might still be alive if ambulances did not have to drive for more than 90 minutes to reach their First Nation.

Manawan, Que. has been fighting for an ambulance for 20 years, but is still being served by other communities

Alamas Petiquay and Lucie-Marie Ottawa say their daughter may be alive if the Atikamekw First Nation of Manawan, in Quebec's Lanaudière region, had its own ambulance. (Radio-Canada)

On the day she died, eight-year-old Sakay-Ann Ottawa was supposed to be home with her older siblings, but against her parents orders, she went swimming with her friends after school instead.

She ended up in deep water and asked a friend who was swimming with her for help, but drowned before their eyes, quickly disappearing under the waters of Lac Métabeskéga last September. 

Sakay-Ann's parents believe their child could have been revived if the Atikamekw community of Manawan, about 250 kilometres north of Montreal, had ready access to ambulance services.

The First Nation, population 1,800, has been calling for its own ambulance for 20 years, but still doesn't have one.

"It would have saved my daughter. She would still be here," Sakay-Ann's mother, Lucie-Marie Ottawa, said.

The territory has first responders, but any paramedics have to drive nearly two hours from Saint-Michel-des-Saints, a journey they took 448 times last year.

Quebec Health Minister Gaétan Barrette has said the issue is being reviewed.

Speeding back, fearing the worst

Her parents heard the rumours that a tragedy had struck their child all the way from Saint-Michel-des-Saints, where they were running errands about 100 kilometres away.

"I was driving so fast," Alamas Petiquay, Sakay-Ann's father, said of his panicked rush to get back.

Other drivers later told Petiquay he had been speeding at an estimated 140 kilometres an hour along the forest road. He thought he was going 50.

The sun is normally blinding as it sets at that time of the afternoon, but he didn't notice that either. Voices talking about a terrible event were blaring out of their CB radio.
Eight-year-old Sakay-Ann Ottawa drowned last September after she went swimming with her friends when her parents were out of town, despite their orders for her to go straight home after school. (courtesy)

"I was saying to myself, 'It's nothing. It's nothing,'" said Lucie-Marie. She told herself some other child must have been mistaken for her daughter.

Soon after they arrived, they found Sakay-Ann. She was lying on a stretcher, her face swollen and bleeding.

Petiquay knew she was dead.

"When I saw that, really, in my head I thought, 'she's gone,'" he said. "I understood as soon as I saw my girl lying there."

When she was pulled from the lake, a doctor was called from the local health clinic. First responders performed CPR on her all the way to the clinic, according to the coroner's report.

The doctor pronounced her dead just after 7 p.m.

Lack of ambulance 'unacceptable', chief says

Though the town has people trained as first responders, ambulance technicians can provide more specialized care, Sakay-Ann's parents say.

Manawan Chief Jean-Roch Ottawa said he believes discrimination may play a role in why, after two decades, Manawan still doesn't have an ambulance.

"Is it because we are Indigenous that we don't have these services? It's unacceptable," he said.
Sakay-Ann Ottawa drowned in the Lac Métabeskéga before the eyes of her friends. Her father, Alamas Petiquay, said he's fighting for a local ambulance service to prevent other tragedies. (Radio-Canada)

Mayors in the area are also decrying the situation, since it affects their towns as well.

When there is a medical emergency in Manawan, an ambulance is dispatched from Saint-Michel-des-Saints. That town then has to turn to other municipalities for help when its ambulance is in Manawan, causing a domino effect.

According to the band council, after Sakay-Ann's death, the provincial health minister told them there would be a solution in place before 2017.

But they haven't gotten any news so far. A spokesperson for the Barrette's office said representatives recently met with officials in Manawan, and issue is still being analyzed.

'We do not want another tragedy'

Coroners' reports have pointed to the absence of an ambulance service as a contributing factor in several deaths in Manawan over the years.

The coroner made no mention of the issue in the report on Sakay-Ann's death, but her parents are convinced that the equipment found in an ambulance could have helped revive her.
Sakay-Ann Ottawa's family created this space in their home to commemorate her after she died. (Radio-Canada)

"We want to help other kids because we have a lot of young people here. We do not want another tragedy to happen," said Petiquay.

Lucie-Marie Ottawa now worries about the safety of her other five children, and is struck with a terrible loneliness when they aren't home.

"I am still in pain," she said.

With files from Radio-Canada's Maude Montembeault