WARNING: This story contains distressing details.
The bodies of two Innu infants who died of whooping cough in a hospital in Baie-Comeau in 1970 are going to be exhumed, a first for Quebec’s new law designed to help Indigenous families get answers about children who died alone in clinics or hospitals.
“It’s quite incredible to believe that some families have been looking for answers for more than 40 years,” Ian Lafrenière, the CAQ minister responsible for relations with First Nations and Inuit, told CBC in an interview Thursday.
I felt so guilty for leaving my child. I experienced shame, guilt and great sadness. To this day, I don’t know if my son is dead or still alive.– Mother of one of the babies whose body will be exhumed
Radio-Canada’s program Enquête first brought to light in 2015 stories of several Indigenous families in Quebec who were prevented from accompanying sick children to health-care facilities where they died in the 1960s and ’70s.
In 2021, Lafrenière and the CAQ government passed a law with the support of all parties in the National Assembly.
That law set up a support team to help these Indigenous families obtain and interpret government documents that might offer them more answers about what happened to their children.
The law also allows, in some cases, for bodies to be exhumed. Two court decisions last week have paved the way for the first two bodies to be exhumed under the new law.
The government covers all the costs for families going through the process.
“This is an important step and we’ll do this together. Making sure that the families keep their dignity through this horrible moment, this is important for me,” Lafrenière said.
Children died alone, families not allowed to look inside coffins
The circumstances of the two cases are similar.
Both involve babies born in the Innu community of Pessamit on the North Shore.
One was four months old, and the other less than a month old when they were sent to hospital in Baie-Comeau in 1970.
“When both children got sick, governmental officials told the parents that they could not accompany them. So both mothers had to let their children go alone, and then both children died,” Virginie Dufresne-Lemire, a lawyer who worked with the families, told CBC.
That was not the only injustice the families suffered.
“When the families received the coffin, they weren’t allowed to open it,” Dufresne-Lemire said. She said government officials at the time told the families this was for health reasons.
Not only did that compound their suffering, Dufresne-Lemire says it’s also left lingering doubts for families that perhaps, although unlikely, their loved ones may still be alive.
“Because of the breach of trust with governmental institutions, there is this doubt that has been there for all these years and that remains to this day,” Dufresne-Lemire said.
“They just want to make sure,” she said. “They want to confirm the identity.”
Shame, guilt and sadness
The identities of the two babies and their families are protected by a publication ban. But the court decision includes sworn statements from family members.
“I blamed myself for not having accompanied my child to the hospital, for not having been with him when he died,” the mother of one infant said in her statement.
“I felt so guilty for leaving my child,” she continued.
“I experienced shame, guilt and great sadness. To this day, I don’t know if my son is dead or still alive,” the mother said.
The mother of the other baby boy to be exhumed died just a few months before the new law was passed, but her daughter gave a sworn statement.
“My mother never saw her son’s body after his death since she was forbidden to open the coffin,” the daughter said.
“My mother died, but she lives through me. I feel her emotions, her pain, and it hurts me greatly. It’s for her that I’m taking these steps,” she continued.
Dozens more cases
Lafrenière said the support team the government set up is looking at up to 150 more cases of children who died without family members with them.
He said in most cases, exhumations aren’t necessary and that documents unearthed with the help of the team provide families with the answers they’re looking for.
He said the very first family to receive help under the new law asked him to be present when they received documents confirming their child’s death.
“It was a tough moment. When we passed the law, we knew there would be tough moments,” he said.
“Knowing that we would discover horrible things that happened in the past. This is the dark history of Quebec,” Lafrenière said.
Dufresne-Lemire said in the case of these two babies, the bodies will be exhumed and DNA tests will be performed to confirm the identities. The bodies will be reburied in a different location, closer to family.
Lafrenière said the exhumations will likely happen sometime this summer. He also said he understands the law is imperfect.
“I’m not even sure that we’re going to get all the information at the end of the day, because we’re talking about remains that have been there since the ’70s,” he said.
“In some cases we’re not going to make it, we’re not going to find the answers and this is tough. It’s tough,” he said.
In the sworn statements, family members seemed to accept this uncertainty as well.
“I don’t know if the exhumation of my brother’s body will ease this feeling,” the sister of one of the babies said.
“On the other hand, my family and I will finally be able to have answers to the uncertainties that have always inhabited us, and perhaps we will then be able to begin our healing process,” she said.