Bereaved families demand province intervene in cemetery labour standoff
MONTREAL — Bereaved families called on Quebec’s premier Sunday to get involved in a labour dispute that has kept Canada’s biggest cemetery closed for five months.
The wrought-iron gates of Montreal’s Notre-Dames-des-Neiges Cemetery have been shut to the public since mid-January due to a strike by operations and maintenance workers, with the exception of a few days in late March and early April.
More than 250 bodies have gone unburied this year as a result of the labour standoff, with the remains stored at freezing temperatures in an on-site repository, said cemetery spokesman Daniel Granger.
"We just can't at this time, with the limited number of people we have on site now, do burials on the grounds," he said in a phone interview.
Jimmy Koliakoudakis, whose mother died in February, called the situation "inhumane" and "lacking dignity," as he held flowers outside the graveyard.
"I can't even go and leave them at my mother's resting place because she doesn't have one; she's in a freezer. We're asking the government to step in," he said. "We're suffering."
Labour Minister Jean Boulet said he expected developments this week, pointing to a pair of provincial mediators assigned to the case.
"This labor dispute has been going on for too long and it is time for it to be resolved," he said in a statement, while stressing that workers "can exercise their right to strike."
Sprawling across Mount Royal’s north side, the Notre-Dames-des-Neiges Cemetery opened for six hours on Mother’s Day, though many areas remained off limits due to fallen branches or precarious tree limbs in the wake of an ice storm last month. Red caution tape reading "Danger" cordoned off roads and paths.
The freezing rain, which downed power lines and cut off electricity for more than a million Quebecers and Ontarians on April 5, prompted closure of the cemetery just days after it had reopened amid the strike.
Cars lined up for blocks to access it Sunday, clogging midtown Montreal as the sound of horns echoed across the otherwise tranquil, tree-lined grounds.
Nick Di Perna, whose daughter, wife, mother, father, aunt and uncle are buried at the cemetery, drove from Toronto to pay his respects.
"I was stuck for an hour there. I thought it was construction," he said. His grandson managed to enter the cemetery through a bend in the fence, but Di Perna stayed outside. "He's slim; he got in."
About 90 groundskeepers have been without a contract since 2018 and on strike since January, union representatives say. Another 17 office staff walked off the job in December after going without a collective agreement since 2017.
"We're always in emergency mode," said Éric Dufault, president of the office workers' union. "It's been a disaster for the quality of services" — from sales to accounting.
"We tried to negotiate these five years, and nothing is moving," he said.
The situation 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 say wages and minimum staffing levels remain sticking points in the bargaining process. The workers make about $70,000 a year, according to the cemetery.
The organization — 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.
"Essentially, we have to provide services to family with only eight people, and at the same time do the cleanup of the site," which stretches across 139 hectares, Granger said.
Provincial regulations state that "bodies placed in a public vault must be cremated or interred" before May 15. Breach of the rule means liability to between $1,500 and $4,500 — per day, according to the association representing families — for each set of remains. In theory, that could cost Notre-Dame-des-Neiges more than $1 million daily.
The group has suggested the cemetery should apply for a court injunction forcing some workers back on the job while discussions continue, noted spokesman Paul Caghassi.
But the cemetery argues it is following the law by storing bodies in frozen, regularly inspected repositories, rather than "public vaults" or other temporary resting places, Granger said.
In a Twitter post Thursday, Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante called "on the parties to continue negotiations to ensure access to the cemetery."
Some families came equipped with gardening kits Sunday as they sought to restore plots that went untended for nearly half a year.
Flanked by fresh soil and hedge trimmers, 42-year-old Van Diep and her brother Lam Diep planted tulips and dug up weeds in front of the red marble headstone of their mother, who died in 2005. They had planned to visit in early spring during the Chinese Qingming Festival — referred to in English as Tomb-Sweeping Day, when families clean gravesites and make ritual offerings to ancestors — but could not access the grounds.
"There were a lot of things to prepare, the whole family reunited, we all came — but it was closed," Diep said.
Evanthia Karassavidis, whose father died in February, said the standoff "has to be resolved as soon as possible."
"I cannot rest until my father is buried. I need closure," she said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 14, 2023.
Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press