Ojibway family seeks apology from northwestern Ontario municipality after loved one's memorial torn down
Wassaykeesic family hopes they can move forward and heal from the what they feel to be a second loss
An Ojibway family in northwestern Ontario is seeking an apology about the way things were handled involving a handmade memorial to their loved ones at the cemetery in Pickle Lake, Ont.
The Wassaykeesic family of Mishkeegogamang First Nation said they were inspired by traditional Ojibway burial practices and said they received permission last summer from Anita Everett, who was the clerk treasurer to build a memorial around the graves of Nellie and Ruth Wassaykeesic. The memorial was made up of white wooden fencing placed around the gravesite, which is a practice common in northern Indigenous communities.
Mishkeegogamang First Nation neighbours Pickle Lake, and people from the reservation live in and around the town. Ruth and her daughter Nellie lived in Pickle Lake, making the family believe this was the best place to bury them.
In October, during a visit to the site, the family saw that the memorial had been torn down and the materials were piled up near a municipal office.
They believe town officials are responsible for the removal of the memorial, which is the responsibility of the municipality. CBC News has not been able to independently verify exactly what happened, but has spoken with four members of the Wassaykeesic family for this story.
But Jonathan Morin, the common-law spouse of Ruth's daughter, Stephanie Wassaykeesic shared video with CBC News of a conversation he recorded during a visit to the municipal office to ask staff about what happened.
The video appears to show him speaking with Jamie Hussey, who is listed in staff directories as Pickle Lake's current clerk treasurer. In the video, she acknowledged the municipality took down the fencing and said it did not comply with municipal bylaws, which do not allow enclosures around lots.
She said she there is no paperwork to confirm the Wassaykeesic family received permission to erect the fence and it is a "he said, she said" situation.
The community's bylaw regarding cemeteries prohibits enclosures of iron, wood, plastic, or concrete around cemetery lots.
CBC News made several attempts to reach Pickle Lake Mayor James Dalzell, through phone and email, for an interview. The emails were not returned and a receptionist at the municipal office said the municipality would not comment on this story.
The family said they can understand why town officials would have wanted the memorial gone, but feel the way it was handled was disrespectful, especially since it happened shortly after Sept. 30, the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.
They're seeking an apology as part of their healing, and would like to see the bylaws adjusted so Indigenous families can honour their loved ones.
"If they would have just phoned the family and said, 'OK, we have reversed the decision, and we are informing you and we are asking you — giving you the opportunity to go to the graveyard cemetery and take down the structure… we would have done it," said Tom Wassaykeesic, the uncle of Stephanie and Nellie.
Tom became aware of the situation and wrote a letter to the mayor and council of Pickle Lake, asking for a response to the family's call for an apology, but said he was ignored.
"It's just asking for an apology. We are not asking for compensation — just an apology on behalf of the town, and just say we regret this whole thing happened, and in the future, we promise it won't happen again to some other family."
Building the memorial
Morin helped build the memorial for his in-laws last year. He knew how much the two family members meant to his partner Stephanie, and wanted to create a way to memorialize them in a respectful way.
He took the lead on the building, but received assistance from people in the community who provided guidance and donated materials for the memorial. The Wassaykeesic family could not afford tombstones, but wanted to create something special.
Since they found the memorial had been ripped down, family members have reached out to the Pickle Lake mayor and councillors, both before and after the Oct. 24 municipal elections, to work with the municipality to rectify the situation.
The family is still awaiting a response from municipal officials, but aren't optimistic.
"I have not received any word of reply from the mayor and council, and I honestly believe they are never going to apologize to the family," Tom said.