MONTREAL — Bereaved families called on Quebec Premier François Legault on Mother’s Day 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.”
A mediator from the provincial government is expected to propose a compromise in the coming days — a step that Labour Minister Jean Boulet has pointed to as part of its efforts to resolve the dispute — said Paul Caghassi, who speaks for a group representing the families.
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” blocked 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, also prompted closure of the cemetery just days after it reopened.
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, having gone without a collective agreement since 2017.
“We’re always in emergency mode,” said Eric Dufault, president of the office workers’ union. “It’s been a disaster for the quality of services.
“We tried to negotiate these five years, and nothing is moving,” he said.
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 amid the strike — cremation and entombment in a crypt.
“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.
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.
–with files from Alessia Simona Maratta, Global News