A Cree family from northern Manitoba says they feel as though their brother’s memorial was desecrated, after it was removed by Manitoba Hydro crews without their consent on Monday.
Leon Kitchekeesik fell through the ice on the Nelson River in 1980 when he was just seven years old. His family, all members of Tataskweyak Cree Nation in Split Lake, Man., was never able to find his remains, so they set up a large cross memorial on an island in the river where they last saw him.
“It’s still very hard to talk about it, even after all these years, because that was the last place I saw my brother. That was the last place my mom saw her son alive,” says Marilyn Mazurat, Leon’s older sister.
“And Hydro has taken that away from us.”
Mazurat says the family was aware Manitoba Hydro crews needed the memorial moved because crews working at the nearby Keeyask Generating Station needed to flood the area. Tataskweyak is one of four First Nations to partner with Hydro on the Keeyask project.
The family reluctantly agreed to move the cross themselves, but they needed some time. They picked out a new spot for the memorial, but the area needed to be cleared, and they wanted all the people that knew and still love Leon to come for one last gathering.
“We needed our time with Leon,” she said.
Mazurat says the plan was to do that over the weekend, but a funeral for an important community member who passed away suddenly was scheduled for Saturday and the weather was too bad to go out to Leon’s island on Sunday, which is about a 1½-hour long boat ride.
The family tried to get in touch with representatives from the Crown corporation over the weekend, but were unsuccessful. They had plans to go back out to the island on Monday or Tuesday.
“We thought we had two days because the impoundment was on the [Wednesday],” Mazurat said, but they were wrong.
On Monday, the family got a call that the cross had been removed and was in storage.
“My heart broke because it was like losing him all over again. I was so angry,” she said.
“They basically desecrated his resting place.”
“It was so disheartening, I was devastated,” added Joyce Beardy, one of Leon’s sisters.
Bruce Owen, a spokesperson for Manitoba Hydro told CBC News in an emailed statement the Crown corporation has been “consistent and openly communicated with the family for many years that the cross would need to be removed and relocated prior to impoundment,” he said.
“Manitoba Hydro acknowledges that the removal of Leon’s cross is a deeply emotional and difficult process for the family, and we have taken care to demonstrate understanding and respect in all interactions on this matter.”
Family wants ‘respect’
The Kitchekeesik family wants the memorial cross returned to its original place so they can relocate it when they’re ready to do so.
Until it’s returned, family members Ila Disbrowe and her husband are camped out on the island.
“They’re fighting for [Leon’s] right to rest in peace,” Mazurat says.
The family is also calling on Manitoba Hydro to apologize and work at better relating to the First Nations people affected by resource extraction.
“People who sit down with First Nations have to hear what they’re saying,” said Jonathan Kitchekeesik, Leon’s brother.
Manitoba Hydro says it’s working to do that.
“We continue to work with the family to find a path forward that allows for the appropriate acknowledgements to take place as the impoundment process begins at Keeyask,” Owen said on behalf of the organization, adding that discussions are ongoing.
Janet McIvor, another of Leon’s siblings, said there’s a sign near the Keeyask Dam site that says the word “respect” on it.
“Why are they writing that word when they haven’t shown respect to us?” McIvor said. “They should remove that sign.”
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