Three Manitoba families already dealing with the pain of losing a loved one in a horrific train crash say the nine-day wait they endured before they could hold funerals, as a result of delayed autopsies, was nearly unbearable.
“You’re shocked when you hear of what happened, and then you’re left clueless as to what happened,” said Joevine Beaulieu, whose nephew, Phil Houle Jr., was killed in an accident on Sept. 8.
“You ask for answers and you don’t get any answers.”
Houle, 45, and Trevor Bone, 25, both from Waywayseecappo First Nation, and a 19-year-old man from Dauphin were on their way to work when the van they were in collided with two CN rail cars near Strathclair.
The men’s bodies were first taken to a holding facility in Brandon for several days, according to Beaulieu, and then to a hospital in Winnipeg for autopsy.
Houle and Bone’s families had to stop and restart the traditional Ojibway rites of saying goodbye, including burning a sacred fire, because of the delays.
“We have gatherings for four days, a traditional wake, people come and go. We were buying stuff — we had to donate it away and do it all over again when the time came for us to do the wake and feast,” said Beaulieu.
He said his son-in-law’s mother, Margaret Swan, waited 10 days last month to bury her son in Lake Manitoba First Nation because of a delay in getting his body returned after an autopsy from Winnipeg.
“We’re not used to that,” said Beaulieu. “We were in limbo. We weren’t getting any answers. We’re still not getting any answers.”
Many families in western Manitoba have recently waited 10 to 14 days for an autopsy when bodies were sent to Winnipeg, according to one Brandon funeral director — something he said several funeral directors in the region have been experiencing. The CBC confirmed the delays with some of those families and funeral directors.
“All of us have a concern about that because for some reason … there’s a delay that’s just not acceptable,” for families, said Memories Chapel’s Brent Buchanan. “We can’t make the arrangements until we know that we have a release of the body.”
With increasing frequency, autopsies that would normally be done in Brandon are being sent to Winnipeg, he said. There’s also widespread concern among funeral directors that this will become the norm as Shared Health amalgamates its services, Buchanan said.
The three sites where autopsies happen in the province are Brandon, and the Health Sciences Centre and St. Boniface Hospital in Winnipeg.
“My understanding is there’s a huge backup in the Winnipeg system, and if they’re talking about transferring Brandon’s, then where does that put the province at?”
‘It’s remarkably cold’: union
In a statement, a spokesperson for Shared Health Services, which oversees autopsy and forensic pathology services, said about 100 autopsies per year would continue to be done in Brandon, but did not say how that compares to past years.
Waits exceeding 10 days have occurred this year in a “handful of cases,” the spokesperson said, but the average wait for autopsy between January and August has ranged between two and five business days.
The delays are occurring because of an increase in autopsies being done in the past several months (unrelated to COVID-19 deaths) and a surge in more complex forensic investigation cases and workforce disruptions due to the pandemic, according to the spokesperson — something expected to improve now that it’s fall.
The union representing autopsy technical assistants, who perform the autopsy with the pathologist, isn’t so sure.
“There’s an absolute lack of staff, there’s a lack of resources across the system. It continues to get worse,” said Bob Moroz, president of the Manitoba Association of Health Care Professionals.
Stories in the media of delays families have been facing are “horrific,” he said.
“It’s remarkably cold, if we’re going to continue to go forward and not invest in ways … to make sure that there is a turnaround time on these autopsies that makes sense. Waiting a week or more? Unacceptable.”
The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs advocated for the families of the September train crash victims, demanding communication and continuity from the Chief Medical Examiner’s Office and RCMP, in light of the delays the families faced.
“Regardless of the fact that they had lost loved ones, as traumatic as that is, I think that there’s a duty for those service providers to ensure that they’re providing all of the assistance that they possibly can,” said Grand Chief Arlen Dumas, who called the delay “unacceptable.”
“It showed that there’s obvious gaps in how we’re supposed to provide service to people.”
Beaulieu said when Phil Houle Jr.’s funeral finally happened, hundreds attended — even his employers. Now, Houle’s three-year-old son has a baby brother, born just days ago and named after his dad.
Houle “was happy-go-lucky. Nothing but a smile on his face, whenever, wherever,” said Beaulieu. He said he doesn’t want other families to experience the same pain during their worst days.
“It’s not just Phil Houle Jr. I’m speaking for. It’s all Natives in Manitoba, with a prolonged process of holding back bodies.”
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