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Oblate religious order covered up decades of sexual abuse of First Nations children, victims allege

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This story is based on a report by Anne Panasuk of the investigative program, Enquête. Watch Enquête’s full report here, in French.


« He’d let us drive. He knew how to do everything. We were impressed to see a priest act that way, » recalls Jason Petiquay.

Petiquay was 11 when he was sexually abused by Raynald Couture, an Oblate missionary who worked in Wemotaci, Que., from 1981 to 1991.

The Atikamekw community 285 kilometres north of Trois-Rivières was one of many remote First Nations communities in Quebec where priests belonging to the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI) were spiritual leaders and authority figures for generations.

Petiquay described how Couture would lure young boys to his cabin by inviting them for a ride on his all-terrain vehicle or in his pick-up truck.

Jason Petiquay says he’s had to respond to more suicides than fires in his role as chief of the Wemotaci fire department. Many of those who took their own lives, he said, were abused by Father Raynald Couture, an Oblate missionary posted in Wemotaci from 1981 to 1991. (Jean-Pierre Gandin/Radio-Canada)

His story of abuse is one of dozens Atikamekw and Innu people in Quebec told Radio-Canada’s investigative program Enquête in a report set to air Thursday evening.

It paints of bleak portrait of widespread sexual abuse at the hands of at least 10 Oblate priests in eight different communities served by the missionary order, which began its evangelization work among Inuit and First Nations in Canada in 1841.

MMIWG shines light on decades-old secret

It has been almost a year since women from the isolated Innu communities of Unamen Shipu and Pakua Shipu, on Quebec’s Lower North Shore, described how they were sexually assaulted by an Oblate priest who worked in their territory for four decades, until his death in 1992.

One after another, alleged victims of the Belgian native, Father Alexis Joveneau, told the federal inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women (MMIWG) how the charismatic and much-admired priest had abused them as children.

« I could not talk about it, » Thérèse Lalo told commissioners. « He was like a god. »

In the wake of the testimony from Lalo and others, the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate issued an apology, setting up a hotline and offering psychological support to Joveneau’s alleged victims.

Father Alexis Joveneau is seen with Innu children in Unamen Shipu, Que. The Oblate missionary lived and worked in Innu communities on Quebec’s Lower North Shore for more than four decades, until his death in 1992. (Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec/Fonds Pauline Laurin)

« We are absolutely devastated by these troubling testimonies, » the OMI’s Quebec office said in a March statement.

But the allegations in the Enquête report suggest the religious order’s superiors long knew about allegations against Joveneau.

Francis Mark, an Innu man from Unamen Shipu who said he was assaulted by Joveneau, said many years ago, he turned for help to the late Archbishop Peter Sutton, an Oblate who was made bishop of the Labrador City-Schefferville diocese in 1974.

« He let me down, » said Mark. « He didn’t guide me. Was there justice? No. »

Devout elders kept silence

In some instances which Enquête looked into, when Oblate superiors or church officials were told about the abuse, the priests were simply sent to neighbouring communities, where other Indigenous children were abused in turn.

In other cases, as in that of Father Raynald Couture in Wemotaci, deeply religious elders in the community insisted on silence.

Charles Coocoo of Wemotaci said he confronted Father Raynald Couture about his abuse of children, asking him to leave the community, but Atikamekw elders insisted the Oblate priest stay. (Jean-Pierre Gandin/Radio-Canada)

« The mushums, the kookums [grandmothers and grandfathers], they asked him to stay in the community, » said Charles Coocoo, a Wemotaci man who once demanded that Couture leave.

Mary Coon, a social worker at the time, went straight to the religious order to ask them to intervene, but without an official police complaint, the Oblates refused.

« The boys wouldn’t file a complaint, » said Coon. « We wanted to get him out of here, but how could we? There was no complaint. We had nothing. »

In 1991, Couture was sent to France, where he remained until eight of his victims pressed charges. In 2004, he was sentenced to 15 months in jail, a punishment another victim, Alex Coocoo, called so light as to be « ridiculous. »

‘A sin to talk’

Claude Niquay said he was a seven-year-old altar boy when he alleges he was first molested by Father Clément Couture, another Oblate missionary who was posted in Manawan, an Atikamekw community southwest of Wemotaci, until 1996.

Niquay was forced to see his alleged abuser every day, when he delivered meals cooked by his grandmother to the priest.

When he tried to tell his grandmother about the assaults, he was punished.

« She’d tell me to go sit in a corner, that it was a sin to talk about those things, » he said.

Claude Niquay says he wasn’t allowed to talk about the abuse he says he suffered as a boy, told speaking out against a priest was blasphemy. (Radio-Canada)

Before Couture’s arrival, the community had been served by two other Oblate priests, Édouard Meilleur, and later, Jean-Marc Houle, whose alleged victims — elderly now — still recall their assaults vividly.

Antoine Quitish was just five when Meilleur allegedly stripped off his cloak and forced himself on him, « poking » Quitish’s chest with his penis.

« I’m happy that [the story] is out now, » said Quitish, now 75.

Other Atikamekw elders described Meilleur as an exhibitionist who would slip his hands under girls’ dresses during confession.

Father Edouard Meilleur, OMI, right, worked in Manawan, Que., from 1938 to 1953. Elders recall that he’d slip his hands under girls’ dresses as they confessed to him. (Submitted by the Conseil de la Nation Atikamekw)

Enquête heard how Houle, who was posted in Manawan from 1953 to 1970, was drawn to pregnant women: he’s alleged to have spread holy oil over the stomachs, the breasts and the genitals of his victims, explaining he was warding off the devil in their unborn children.

The stories got out.

« I told the archdiocese, ‘If you don’t get that guy out of there, tomorrow morning it will be on the front page of the newspapers’, » recalls Huron-Wendat leader Max Gros-Louis, then the head of the Association of Indians of Quebec.

Houle was removed, said Gros-Louis — only to be sent to the Innu community of Pessamit, on Quebec’s North Shore.

Community warned of priest’s behaviours

Robert Dominique, then a band councillor in Pessamit, said his Atikamekw friends warned him about Houle, but the culture of the time ensured his silence.

« For elders, their faith is deeply rooted, » Dominique said. « Religion is sacred. »

Saying out loud that a priest was violating women and children was inconceivable, Gros-Louis agreed.

« You wouldn’t be allowed to go out anymore. You’d be banished, excommunicated, » he said.

There is no evidence Houle’s alleged assaults continued in Pessamit. However, people in that community recall abuse by three Oblate priests who preceded him.

Rachelle Dominique said was assaulted by three different Oblate priests sent to the Innu community of Pessamit on Quebec’s North Shore. (Jean-Pierre Gandin/Radio-Canada)

Dominique’s sister, Rachelle, alleges she was first assaulted by Father Sylvio Lesage in the 1960s, and when Father Roméo Archambault replaced him in the 1970s, for her, things got worse.

He would take her into the church basement, she remembers.

« He was behind me, holding my little breasts, » she alleges, « and after I had to masturbate him in the dark. »

She described feeling « broken, vilified. »

Radio-Canada’s Enquête uncovered allegations of sexual abuse at the hands of 10 Oblate priests in eight different communities served by the missionary order. (Radio-Canada)

Jean-Yves Rousselot also recounted being sexually assaulted by Archambault — alleged assaults that continued when that Oblate missionary was replaced by Father René Lapointe. The young altar boy told his grandfather what had happened and was beaten.

« I had to go to confession, to confess that I had committed blasphemy, » Rousselot said.

Lapointe was his confessor.

The priest would later be relocated to another Innu community, Nutashkuan, where he remained for 30 years, allegedly paying children to masturbate him.

In 2003, provincial police launched an investigation following a complaint, but charges were never laid.

Class action suit awaits Oblates

In the Innu community of Mani-Utenam, Gérard Michel recalls community elders sending him, along with another young man, to Baie-Comeau in 1970 to ask the archbishop to remove Father Omer Provencher, who is alleged to have been sexually assaulting girls in the community.

Nothing was done.

« Nothing, nothing, nothing, » said Michel, now an elder himself.

Provencher, who left the priesthood to live with an Innu woman years ago, told Enquête he will not answer any questions until he is formally charged with a crime.

Father René Lapointe, the priest who spent three decades in Nutashkuan, denies he ever sexually assaulted children.

Now at the Oblates’ retirement home in Richelieu, he told Enquête there is absolutely no truth in any of it.

« Nothing is true in that story. These are all inventions, » he said.

Raynald Couture was sentenced to 15 months in prison in 2004. He said he asked the Oblates for psychological support during his time in Wemotaci but was told to deal with his problems on his own. (Radio-Canada)

Raynald Couture, the Oblate priest who was found guilty of sexually assaulting children in Wemotaci, lives in the same retirement home.

He admits his past crimes.

« I drank like a bastard, and that’s when those things happened, » he told Enquête. He called his assaults « a weakness » and then a « game with the children, » and said he sought help from his superiors, asking to see the Oblates’ psychologist.

« They never even came, » he said.

Most of the priests accused of having assaulted so many Innu and Atikamekw people as children are dead now; Father Alexis Joveneau, who died in 1992, is buried in the cemetery in Unamen Shipu, where he spent so many years.

In late March, just days after the Oblates issued their apology and set up a hotline for Joveneau’s alleged victims, a class action suit was launched in Quebec for all victims of sexual assault at the hands of Oblate priests.

Lawyer Alain Arsenault says to date, 48 victims have come forward, alleging they were assaulted by 14 different Oblate missionaries.

The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate are still very present in several of Quebec’s Innu communities. (Radio-Canada)

With the court case pending, the head of the Oblates’ Quebec office, Father Superior Luc Tardif, turned down a request to be interviewed for this story.

Regardless of the results of that lawsuit, people in Unamen Shipu are asking that Joveneau’s remains, buried next to their Innu loved ones, be exhumed and taken away.

– Based on a report by Anne Panasuk of Radio-Canada’s Enquête

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‘Business as usual’ for Dorel Industries after terminating go-private deal

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MONTREAL — Dorel Industries Inc. says it will continue to pursue its business strategy going forward after terminating an agreement to go private after discussions with shareholders.

« Moving ahead. Business as usual, » a spokesman for the company said in an email on Monday.

A group led by Cerberus Capital Management had previously agreed to buy outstanding shares of Dorel for $16 apiece, except for shares owned by the family that controls the company’s multiple-voting shares.

But Dorel chief executive Martin Schwartz said the Montreal-based maker of car seats, strollers, bicycles and home furniture pulled the plug on a deal on the eve of Tuesday’s special meeting after reviewing votes from shareholders.

“Independent shareholders have clearly expressed their confidence in Dorel’s future and the greater potential for Dorel as a public entity, » he said in a news release.

Dorel’s board of directors, with Martin Schwartz, Alan Schwartz, Jeffrey Schwartz and Jeff Segel recused, unanimously approved the deal’s termination upon the recommendation of a special committee.

The transaction required approval by two-thirds of the votes cast, and more than 50 per cent of the votes cast by non-family shareholders.

Schwartz said enhancing shareholder value remains a top priority while it stays focused on growing its brands, which include Schwinn and Mongoose bikes, Safety 1st-brand car seats and DHP Furniture.

Dorel said the move to end the go-private deal was mutual, despite the funds’ increased purchase price offer earlier this year.

It said there is no break fee applicable in this case.

Montreal-based investment firm Letko, Brosseau & Associates Inc. and San Diego’s Brandes Investment Partners LP, which together control more than 19 per cent of Dorel’s outstanding class B subordinate shares voiced their opposition to the amended offer, which was increased from the initial Nov. 2 offer of $14.50 per share.

« We believe that several minority shareholders shared our opinion, » said Letko vice-president Stephane Lebrun, during a phone interview.

« We are confident of the long-term potential of the company and we have confidence in the managers in place.”

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Anglais

Pandemic funds helping Montreal businesses build for a better tomorrow

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Many entrepreneurs have had to tap into government loans during the pandemic, at first just to survive, but now some are using the money to better prepare their businesses for the post-COVID future.

One of those businesses is Del Friscos, a popular family restaurant in Dollard-des-Ormeaux that, like many Montreal-area restaurants, has had to adapt from a sit-down establishment to one that takes orders online for takeout or delivery.

“It was hard going from totally in-house seating,” said Del Friscos co-owner Terry Konstas. “We didn’t have an in-house delivery system, which we quickly added. There were so many of our employees that were laid off that wanted to work so we adapted to a delivery system and added platforms like Uber and DoorDash.”

Helping them through the transition were emergency grants and low-interest loans from the federal and provincial governments, some of which are directly administered by PME MTL, a non-profit business-development organization established to assist the island’s small and medium-sized businesses.

Konstas said he had never even heard of PME MTL until a customer told him about them and when he got in touch, he discovered there were many government programs available to help his business get through the downturn and build for the future. “They’ve been very helpful right from day one,” said Konstas.

“We used some of the funds to catch up on our suppliers and our rents, the part that wasn’t covered from the federal side, and we used some of it for our new virtual concepts,” he said, referring to a virtual kitchen model which the restaurant has since adopted.

The virtual kitchen lets them create completely different menu items from the casual American Italian dishes that Del Friscos is known for and market them under different restaurant brand names. Under the Prasinó Soup & Salad banner, they sell healthy Greek options and their Stallone’s Sub Shop brand offers hearty sandwiches, yet the food from both is created in the same Del Friscos kitchen.

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Downtown Montreal office, retail vacancies continue to rise

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Some of downtown Montreal’s key economic indicators are heading in the wrong direction.

Office and retail vacancies in the city’s central core continued to climb in the fourth quarter of 2020, according to a quarterly report released Thursday by the Urban Development Institute of Quebec and the Montréal Centre-Ville merchants association. The report, whose first edition was published in October, aims to paint a socio-economic picture of the downtown area.

The survey also found office space available for sublet had increased during the fourth quarter, which may foreshadow even more vacancies when leases expire. On the residential front, condo sales fell as new listings soared — a sign that the downtown area may be losing some of its appeal to homeowners.

“It’s impossible not to be preoccupied by the rapid increase in office vacancies,” Jean-Marc Fournier, the former Quebec politician who now heads the UDI, said Thursday in an interview.

Still, with COVID-19 vaccinations set to accelerate in the coming months, “the economic picture is bound to improve,” he said. “People will start returning downtown. It’s much too early to say the office market is going to disappear.”

Public health measures implemented since the start of the pandemic almost a year ago — such as caps on office capacity — have deprived downtown Montreal of more than 500,000 workers and students. A mere 4,163 university and CEGEP students attended in-person classes in the second quarter, the most recent period for which figures are available. Border closures and travel restrictions have also brought tourism to a standstill, hurting hotels and thousands of local businesses.

Seventy per cent of downtown workers carried out their professional activities at home more than three days a week during the fourth quarter, the report said, citing an online survey of 1,000 Montreal-area residents conducted last month.

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