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Grievers sneaking into Montreal cemetery as labour dispute drags on; 300 bodies still unburied

July 10, 2023
The Canadian Press

By Christopher Reynolds

Once a week, Nancy Babalis slips under the wrought-iron fence surrounding Canada’s largest cemetery to visit the grave of her 13-year-old son.

“I sneak in every weekend. I found a place where the fence is higher,” she said on Sunday.

Babalis, whose brown-haired boy Charlie died due to a cancerous tumour 10 years earlier minus a day, now has to dodge downed branches and wade through waist-high weeds at the Notre-Dame-des-Neiges Cemetery, where the gates have been locked since mid-January amid a strike by more than 100 maintenance and office workers.

“If it was their child or their loved one there, they would do the same thing,” said Babalis, who wore her son’s necklace chain bearing a heart ornament.


“The (Quebec) government has to do something … They have to put their foot down and say enough is enough.”

Mourners issued pleas Sunday for the province to take action as the months-long standoff between workers and management at the 169-year-old graveyard drags on.

300 bodies unburied

The impasse has left more than 300 bodies unburied, with the remains stored at freezing temperatures in an on-site repository, the cemetery said.

Labour Minister Jean Boulet said in a Twitter post Thursday the parties will meet with him separately on Monday.

“This conflict has been going on for far too long and Minister Jean Boulet reaffirms his full support for the families who do not have to bear the brunt of this situation,” spokesman Jean Phillipe De Choiniere said in an email.

“The purpose of these meetings is to listen to the parties and plan a game plan to reach an agreement quickly and thus allow the families affected to be able to fully experience their grief.”

Enza Lucifero, whose father died the day after the cemetary locked its gates on Jan. 12, said her family has been unable to find closure since.

“We have not even been able to bury him,” she said. “So, what, six months later we have to see the body again and bury him?”

“It’s reliving the death all over again. It’s reliving the grief all over again.”

Dignity for the dead

Lucifero demanded the Quebec government move to resolve the dispute, calling the situation devoid of dignity for the dead.

And Babalis isn’t the only one who’s seen no choice but to sneak onto the grounds.

“I just got back from cutting my daughter’s grass. We go through the fence every Sunday,” said Michael Musacchio, whose 26-year-old daughter died in 2021.

“I got my weed whacker in the car.”

He said he’s seen other illicit visitors, and in the winter plenty of footprints in the snow.

“I saw one fellow with a wheelbarrow. He was carrying dirt and he was going to plant flowers,” Musacchio said, demonstrating alongside a handful of other protesters outside the graveyard on Sunday.

“It really is an abandoned field.”

Tentative agreement collapsed

A tentative agreement between management and the Cemetery Maintenance Employees’ Union fell through last month.

Both sides had agreed to support the recommendation of the province’s head mediator, Boulet said on June 15, dubbing the would-be deal an “excellent development.” But the maintenance union ultimately rejected it.

About 90 groundskeepers have been without a collective agreement since 2018 and on strike since January, union representatives say. Another 17 office staff kicked off the job action in September after going without a contract since 2017.

Cemetery spokesman Daniel Granger said he hoped to find a resolution “as soon as possible.”

Weeds, shrubs and fallen tree limbs from a spring ice storm still cover the cemetery grounds, which sprawl across Mount Royal’s north side. On Sunday a groundhog perched on the base of a headstone, shrouded in overgrown grass, the only creature visible on the property.

“Now that all the leaves are on the trees, you don’t see that the branches are broken. We have one, two, three, four tree limbs that fall each day. That makes it dangerous for people to walk the cemetery,” Granger said.

“There’s a big cleanup that needs to be done.”

The cemetery opened for six hours on Mother’s Day, the first time it unlocked the gates since the strike began except for a few days in early spring. But many areas remained off limits due to fallen trunks and precarious tree limbs in the wake of the ice storm on April 5.

The graveyard marks the final resting place for tens of thousands, including hockey legend Maurice Richard, painter Jean-Paul Riopelle and former governor general Jeanne Sauve.

The labour impasse resembles a strike in 2007 that delayed interment of more than 300 bodies as burials and cremations went on hold for months.

The two unions involved have said the bargaining process has stalled over wages and minimum staffing levels. The workers make about $70,000 a year, according to the cemetery.

The graveyard — owned by the Fabrique de la paroisse Notre-Dame, a non-profit Catholic entity — has struggled to keep up with demand for the services it continues to carry out during the strike. namely cremation and entombment in crypts.

“We’re stuck in the middle,” said Jimmy Koliakoudakis, whose mother died in February.

“I don’t understand why the government isn’t taking a harder stance or a more direct step into this labour conflict.”

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