Quebec names ex-journalist to help Indigenous families find answers on missing kids

Ex-journalist Anne Panasuk says it was important to get approval from elders before she accepted a job offer from the Quebec government to help implement a law aimed at helping Indigenous families find missing children.

"If families were OK with it, I was going to move forward, but I wanted to make sure they were comfortable with the law first," Panasuk said about Bill 79, which was adopted in June. The law allows Indigenous families to obtain information on the disappearance or death of children admitted into a health or social services institution in the province before December 1992.

"They told me to go for it," she said in an interview Wednesday. "And then I couldn't refuse."

Panasuk, an ex-Radio-Canada journalist who reported on missing Indigenous children in Quebec, said Bill 79 offers the necessary tools for families to get concrete answers about children who remain unaccounted for after they entered state or religious institutions.

"Are we going to answer all the questions … I don't know," Panasuk said. "But I want to be able to tell someone who is slowly drifting away due to Alzheimer's that we have found their daughter. We know where she is buried."

Indigenous Affairs Minister Ian Lafreniere said Tuesday the government had named Panasuk as a liaison between the government and Indigenous families who request information about missing loved ones. He said he hoped Panasuk's experience working with First Nations communities will not only help the government implement Bill 79 but contribute to the process of reconciliation between the state and Indigenous Peoples.

"I hope that Panasuk's collaboration will allow families to move forward in their quest for the truth," Lafreniere said.

Shortly after adopting Bill 79, the Quebec government named Geoffrey Kelley, a former Indigenous affairs minister with the Liberal party, as the negotiator between the province and Kahnawake, a Mohawk community southwest of Montreal.

The new law and the appointments of Panasuk and Kelley show that Quebec is making progress when it comes to addressing Indigenous issues, according to Joe Delaronde, spokesman for the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake.

"Anything is better than the way it was," Delaronde said in an interview Wednesday. "It's always been frustrating for us, over the past years we had barely any real contact politically with Quebec."

Kelley, he said, "was appointed because it was well known that he had a good relationship with us, there seems to be mutual trust and respect and it's looked upon as a very good move by the community."

Panasuk, who is also an anthropologist, was one of the first journalists in Quebec to report on missing children in Indigenous communities and said she was regularly denied access to information from the government during her reporting.

"There were situations so absurd," Panasuk said. "Like when a father whose child was taken to La Tuque, Que., hospital. She was only two. We were told she was dead, but there was never any death certificate, and we later learned that she wasn't dead after all. She got transferred but we couldn't find out where because we didn't have access to the medical files."

Having access to medical files, but also to archives from religious orders, will help researchers get a better idea of how many Indigenous children are unaccounted for, Panasuk said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on June 9, 2021.

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