There’s no such thing as a typical workday for Special Advisor Anne Panasuk.
“My job is to be the bridge between the government and Indigenous communities,” Panasuk told APTN News in an interview this week. “I’m on the phone a lot, I’m on messenger a lot, on Zoom – talking to Indigenous leaders, but also to families. Sometimes we’re filling out forms on messenger, or families will reach out to me to say ‘I have a request.
“But I’d like to be on the ground more, that’s for certain because I think the families need to see us.”
Panasuk – a retired investigative journalist – was named the Special Advisor for Families of Missing Indigenous Children, charged with overseeing Quebec’s Bill 79 – the access to information law that is meant to help families of First Nations or Inuit children who went missing or died after being hospitalized off-reserve.
When Bill 79 was passed in Quebec’s National Assembly in September 2021, Indigenous Affairs Minister Ian Lafreniere said he hoped it would be the first step “in a historic shift in the relations” between government and communities, while helping to “lighten the burden” of families involved.
For decades, the legacy of Quebec’s “bébés-fantômes,” or “Ghost Babies,” was a piece of hidden history affecting families from remote First Nations in a period spanning the 1950s to the 1970s.
A few dozen cases from Atikamekw and Innu communities were explored during the Viens commission’s hearings, each with their own painful details.
For example, there were stories of coffins being sent home to communities with lids screwed shut, stories of babies taken away at birth and pronounced dead before their mothers could hold them, and in some cases, stories where children left the reserve and simply vanished without a trace.
Under the new law, public institutions like hospitals, churches, and cemeteries are legally compelled to turn over all documents related to these disappearances, if and when they’re requested by the families.
If they don’t, the law also gives government representatives the power to file access to information complaints up the ranks in order to obtain them.
After nearly six months on the job, Panasuk told APTN the number of cases of missing children is still growing.
“We’re already looking for 55 children – that was in mid-February. We’re still filling out requests [for information],” Panasuk explained.
“I know that very soon we won’t be far off from 80 [children] sought. We know that there are many more. It’s only been half a year – and the law’s only been enforced since mid-September,” she added.
“But in that [time], to be searching for so many children indicates there was a great need.”
Panasuk said Atikamekw communities have been tracking the ghost babies saga for years, and have at least 44 more documented cases. She’s convinced there are more to be uncovered towards the north – in the Inuit communities of the region known as Nunavik.
“I think this touches all remote communities. All communities that were remote in the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s, when there were no roads, they were far from hospitals, and when parents couldn’t move around easily. And when there wasn’t easy means of communication, like by telephone, to get news of their children,” she explained.
A planned tour of the communities will continue now that pandemic restrictions in the province are lifting, according to Panasuk.
A progress report and preliminary recommendations are expected to drop at the National Assembly at the end of March and will be made public shortly thereafter.
While little is known about the types of answers being obtained throughout the course of Panasuk’s research, she feels every small detail uncovered brings these families closer to a sense of closure.
“It’s the families who decide what they want to know. Do they only want to know where the child is buried? Do they want to know how the child died? Do they want to exhume the body once they know? It really depends on the wants of the parents,” she explained. “It allows them to grieve – and that’s extremely important.”
“And being able to tell families ‘I will search [for you], we will find that information, and I will give it to you – that’s extraordinary.”