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Gathering of Unmarked Burials

On Thursday, governor general Mary Simon attended the National Gathering on Unmarked Burials, where families from across Canada were encouraged to share stories of searching for their loved ones. Courtesy Governor General of Canada

Reg Nepinak said it’s a relief to finally be able to bring home the spirit of his lost sister. The Manitoba family’s trip to Quebec last week for the fifth National Gathering on Unmarked Burials gave them the chance to finally visit the cemetery of their late sister Marlene for the first time.

It involved “a lot of crying and mixed emotions” for the family from Pine Creek First Nation, he said, but most of all, it was an opportunity to heal. He and his two sisters, Sharon Macintyre and Christine Szabo, performed a ceremony in her memory at the St. Patrick Church cemetery in Magog, in the Eastern Townships, this past Wednesday.

“We spoke and asked her to come home with us,” said Nepinak, who came out to the National Gathering to share his sister’s story. 

“We prayed to our parents, and I asked them to come and get her and take her home. And then when we got back home, we did another small ceremony, and thanked her for coming home with us.”

Marlene was taken away by an Indian agent at just seven years old. The rest of her life was spent at the former Cecil Butters Memorial Hospital in Austin, Quebec, where she lived until her death at 13 years old.

“When she passed away in 1971, we were told four days after she was buried that she had passed away. Mom and dad were never told what she passed away from,” he said, speaking 64 years since her disappearance.

There had been hopes of one day exhuming her remains to bring them back home – something that won’t be possible for the family. Their sister was buried in an unmarked grave. “There were a bunch of children from Cecil Butters that were buried in the same area where markers were never left,” he said.

His late sister suffered from spina bifida, a spinal malformation. She was often in and out of hospitals throughout her youth. She ended up at Cecil after being refused long-term care at a hospital in Winnipeg, her brother said. The family had long known the location of her cemetery, but it wasn’t until this year that they learned why she was sent to Quebec. 

Medical records they later obtained from the Manitoba and Quebec governments labelled her as “mentally retarded,” something totally contrary to the truth, Nepinak said. She was sent to Cecil because in the 1960s it had been running a program for children with intellectual disabilities. However, many questions still remain unanswered for the family.

“They didn’t perform an autopsy when she passed. They just listed an epileptic seizure as the cause of death,” Nepinak said.

The Eastern Door reached out to the Butters Foundation for comment but did not hear back by publication.

An opportunity to share knowledge

Nepinak and his siblings weren’t the only ones to share stories of lost family members at the gathering. The three-day gathering in Montreal provided a space for countless families across the country to come and exchange knowledge with each other. Those leading efforts to recover the identities of children in unmarked burial sites were among those invited. 

It was the fifth gathering across Canada led by Kimberly Murray, the independent special interlocutor for missing children and unmarked graves and burial sites associated with Indian residential schools, since this time last year. Her office has been given a two-year mandate to provide recommendations to the federal government for the respectful and culturally appropriate treatment of burial sites at residential schools. 

“I think she’s doing a phenomenal job thus far,” said Mohawk Council of Kahnawake (MCK) grand chief Kahsennenhawe Sky-Deer, who attended to welcome invitees to the territory. 

Mohawk Council of Kahnawake grand chief Kahsennenhawe Sky-Deer welcomed attendees to the territory on day one of the National Gathering on Unmarked Burials. Marie Wilson, left, who was a commissioner for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and Kimberly Murray, centre, the independent special interlocutor for missing children and unmarked graves and burial sites associated with Indian residential schools, also attended. Courtesy Kahsennenhawe Sky-Deer

“I think doing these sessions in all of the different cities across the country, and bringing people together, it’s continuing to create that space of support and love for one another as brother and sister. First Nations people are going all through the same thing. Her keeping up what she’s doing is so important and necessary.”

Murray said she also hopes to see the federal government respond just as seriously to allegations she’s collecting about unmarked burials at other types of institutions.

“We hear a lot about the hospitals at our gatherings, about reformatories. They talk about orphanages,” said Murray, who is from Kanesatake. “It wasn’t just residential schools. Children were taken from all over the place. They went missing from their families – people didn’t know where they were taken.” 

Murray also used the gathering to provide a space for the Kanien’kehá:ka Kahnistensera (Mohawk Mothers) to collect testimonies about Indigenous children believed to be buried at the site of the former Royal Victoria Hospital, where CIA-funded medical experiments were carried out in the 1950s and 1960s.

“That’s what those gatherings are for. It’s not just networking,” said Kwetiio, one of the Mohawk Mothers in attendance. “You ask a question, and two or three people will come up to you saying ‘I have information.’”

This article was originally published in print on Friday, September 15, in issue 32.37 of The Eastern Door.

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Miriam Lafontaine is a reporter with the Eastern Door. Her work has appeared in Le Devoir, CBC Montreal, CBC New Brunswick as well as the Toronto Star.

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Miriam Lafontaine is a reporter with the Eastern Door. Her work has appeared in Le Devoir, CBC Montreal, CBC New Brunswick as well as the Toronto Star.