Let's honour the dead before they die
An uplifting newsletter about losing the people we love. And journalism.
I stood with my face to the sun, soaking in those final moments of daylight on the lake.
It’s not quite fall yet but the air is crisp and the leaves have begun to turn. Gusts of wind carry the smell of birch bark across the water. If there is a God, I could feel its presence swaddling me on the shore of a cold lake in Abitibi.
That’s when it it dawned on me: my grandfather might be dead before I return home.
“We should pick up some rocks for Sylvain,” Mark said.
“Yeah, that’s a great idea.”
We combed the surface of the shoreline with our hands. My uncle Sylvain lives with my grandfather Arthur just outside of Mohawk territory. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia, 15 years ago. He loves rocks. I went to his section of the house once and opened the fridge. It was full of rocks.
Sylvain says he can see faces in the rocks. He plucks them from the Lake of Two Mountains and adds them to a wall he’s built along their property. It looks like Hadrian’s Wall in Northern England — something that’s been there for centuries, something that once held an empire together.
Sylvain and Arthur have lived together since my grandmother died a few years back. They play chess at night and cook for each other, and they used to go for walks. My uncle doesn’t complain about grand-père’s chain-smoking and, as far as I know, Arthur hasn’t said anything about the fridge full of rocks.
I rubbed my hand along the water and, as it receded, found the perfect rock. It was oval-shaped with traces of rust on it. Mark handed me something a bit more jagged.
I’m touched that he would think to pick up a rock for Sylvain. They’re cousins, and I’m living with Mark and his wife while working on this reporting project in Val-d’Or. I worry that if — in the course of my investigating an investigation into police misconduct — I uncover something controversial, it could hurt Mark because of his association with me. So I won’t mention his last name here.
Last night at dinner, Mark told me his mom — who is my grandfather’s sister — visited him and they had an emotional hug goodbye.
“It may be the last time,” Mark said.
My grandfather is dying. I’ll spare you the details, but it’s painful for him, a towering figure in our lives and in the community he helped build, to be a prisoner in his own body.
He moved his family from Montreal’s East End to Two Mountains in the 1970s because the town needed a doctor. And yes, he delivered babies and sutured cuts but he was also a sort of elder statesmen in Two Mountains.
Being the kin of “Dr. Lefebvre” was its own form of currency in the anglo enclave I grew up in. It opened doors, it broke the ice and I’m told that — if the right police officer pulled you over — it got you out of a speeding ticket.
His brood of wild French-Canadian children brought a particular sort of energy to the North Shore. Over the course of a few summers, his sons built a sailboat on the front lawn and nearly set the house on fire.
My uncles maintain it was Arthur’s smoking that posed the biggest hazard, but I’d wager that a pack of teenagers with a welding torch was at least as dangerous.
If these are his last days, I want him to know that I’m lucky some small part of him courses through me.
It was my grandfather’s hands that first touched me as I came screaming from my mother’s womb. Those same hands glued my nose back together when my brother, Vincent, split it open 31 years ago. They bandaged my cuts and wrapped sprained ankles and secured my broken arm in a sling made of a pillowcase. Those hands wiped my tears.
I like to think they also imparted some of his magic onto me.
This project is about a lot of things but, above all else, it’s about measuring up to the promise that came with being Arthur Lefebvre’s grandson. If I can’t take a risk from this incredible position of privilege, how can I ask anyone else to take a risk on me?
My mind and intentions are clear, and it’s with that clarity that I began the hardest part of this project Thursday.
The people I met in a quiet room near downtown Val-d’Or told me two stories.
You may have heard the first one: five years ago, a dozen Indigenous women came forward with allegations that police in the mining city beat them, coerced them to perform sexual favours for money and sexually assaulted them. You may have heard about a system that failed them because it was designed to. And if you know that part of that story, then you know what came next. Even after a police investigation and a parliamentary commission, their alleged abusers never even saw the inside of a courtroom.
Here’s the story you haven’t heard.
These women risked everything to speak out. Some spent years feeling humiliated, wearing their pain like a second skin. And when they finally came forward with testimony that forced Quebec’s government to listen to them, the pain didn't go away. They had courage and dignity, but journalists didn’t tell that story. We failed them.
There are elements of this story that I can’t get into because it’s a dangerous one to tell. That’s what I came to uncover. It will take months of building trust and gathering evidence but I will tell the story. Because it’s what needs to be done.
For now, I head home with a heavy heart, muddy boots and a coat weighed down by two of the finest rocks pulled from a lake somewhere deep in the Canadian Shield.
But I also go home with an unyielding sense of purpose. Merci, grand-père.
We’re still growing our audience so you may get two newsletters a week for a while, but eventually I’ll start sleeping regular hours again and cut back to just one weekly for paid subscribers.
In the meantime, please enjoy this one because it’s free and we want to spread the word about our subscription-based ARMY OF CHAMPIONS (copyright pending).
Here’s what I’m working on.
The resistance has grown since Wednesday’s story in Ricochet Media about Anishnaabe blocking roads to prevent trophy hunting on their territory.
There are now five camps in La Vérendrye Wildlife Reserve, where Indigenous groups have erected barricades to prevent moose hunters from accessing cabins in the park. Whereas there was some tension between non-Indigenous hunters and the Anishnaabe when I visited Tuesday, things have intensified. That’s according to this report by Jeff Dorn of APTN News.
I’m keeping an eye on this.
I should also be visiting a few Anishnaabe communities up here next time around to write a rather hopeful story about youth protection services in the territory. Won’t get too deep into details but here’s something one Anishnaabe mother told me that melted my heart a bit:
“In the end, it’s the children that will unite the Anishnaabe in Abitibi.”
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