Joan Saunders didn’t find it particularly alarming when four years passed without hearing from her youngest brother, Daniel (Danny) Saunders — an Inuk man living in Montreal.
As Danny had had some run-ins with the law over the years, Joan thought her unanswered “Happy Birthdays” and “Merry Christmases” could be the result of an incarceration. Her other theories included a lost phone or a precarious living situation that prevented him from answering her.
What she never imagined was what actually happened: that her brother had died and been buried in a Laval, Que., cemetery back in 2018 without anyone telling her family.
“It took four years for us to realize that our brother was gone and already buried,” Joan said in an interview with CBC News.
There is no headstone at the grave where the 43-year-old father of three is buried. Only the number 212 written in orange spray paint marks the plot.
“Who gives permission for these people to do what they do? To bury our brother like that and not get in touch with anybody?”
According to the Quebec coroner’s office, it’s up to the police officers assigned to the file — in Danny’s case, the Service de Police de la Ville de Montréal (SPVM) — to find the contact information for the deceased’s family and inform them of the death.
While there is a process in place in Quebec to search for the next of kin, the Saunders family said it failed them as they had to find out about their brother’s death via a complete stranger on social media.
The family is now demanding answers and accountability from Montreal police and the Quebec government.
Learned of death through Facebook
The last time any Saunders sibling saw Danny was on Nov. 12, 2017 at his housing unit in Montreal’s Saint-Léonard borough, where he’d been living as part of a social reintegration program and was supported by a social worker.
His family, comprised of 14 siblings, is originally from Happy Valley-Goose Bay, N.L., and part of the Inuit community in the Nunatsiavut region. Some of the siblings, several that now live in Dryden, Ont., came to see Danny for a visit.
After that, he fell off the grid.
“It was the way Danny was, that’s the way we grew up,” said Tim Saunders, Danny’s older brother.
But sometime last week, a Saunders sibling still living in Labrador received a Facebook message from a neighbour of Danny’s, who said it had been a while since he’d seen him, and after he did some digging, he found out he had died four years ago.
Concerned, the family did their own research. A call between Joan’s daughter and the Quebec coroner’s office confirmed Danny’s death, which is estimated to have occurred March 1, 2018. He was buried almost three months later.
“I found out that my brother wasn’t on earth here anymore through social media, and that’s pretty bad,” Tim said.
According to the coroner’s investigation into the man’s death, Danny’s social worker, smelling a foul odour outside his apartment during a visit on March 14, 2018, asked a concierge to accompany her to his unit. Through the patio door, they saw the man, lying dead on his bed.
The report concluded that Danny died of coronary heart disease, precipitated by poorly controlled diabetes and severe obesity. He did not appear to use alcohol or drugs.
Police made ‘no effort’ to find them, family claims
The Saunders family says it shouldn’t have been all that hard to find them. All 14 siblings share the same mother and father, hence many share the same last name.
“All they had to do was even look up on Facebook and find his Facebook page. They could’ve found me. They could’ve found most of our siblings that way,” said Elizabeth Adams, Danny’s eldest sister, whose last name is “Saunders Adams” on Facebook.
Danny’s jail and court records should have also been able to lead police to the family, says Joan, who lives in Montreal. She says police clearly knew where to find her, because whenever they were looking for Danny when he was in trouble, they’d turn up at her house.
WATCH | Danny Saunders’s sister says her family needs closure and answers:
“He wasn’t in trouble this time because he was dead. How come they didn’t come knock on the door?” she said.
“They didn’t care enough, the police or the social worker, to get in touch with [the] family. He had a lot of family and he had friends, too.”
The Saunders siblings say it’s unacceptable that they weren’t contacted in this age of technology. They accuse the SPVM of not doing its job.
“It seems like there was no effort, no nothing whatsoever was done to find [us],” Tim said.
Montreal police respond
When asked who decides whether a reasonable effort had been made to find the next of kin, the Quebec coroner’s office said that responsibility falls to the police department in charge. In Danny’s case, that’s the Montreal police.
Contacted multiple times by CBC News to explain the police service’s role in finding Danny’s family, the SPVM initially redirected all questions to the government’s Directeur de l’état civil, or registrar of civil status — the agency responsible for registering births, marriages and death.
Finally, the service said that SPVM investigators dedicated to these types of cases “inform the family of the death when it is possible to reach them.”
“Unfortunately, all the efforts made by the SPVM to locate members of Mr. Saunders’s family have not been successful,” it said in an emailed statement.
The service would not comment further on Danny’s case.
In a situation where no family member can be found by police, the coroner’s office publishes the name of the deceased in the “Unclaimed Bodies” section of its website for a minimum of 30 days, to give the family a chance to come forward, the coroner’s office said in a statement.
After 30 days or more have passed without a family member coming forward, the body is buried at the expense of the coroner’s office.
Danny’s name was added to the list on April 20, 2018 — more than a month after his death. He was buried May 31.
In 2021, 31 people were buried after no family members were found, the coroner’s office said. So far in 2022, 18 people have been laid to rest after no family members came forward.
‘System is failing Indigenous people,’ says brother
Danny’s siblings say they can’t help but think their brother’s death was taken lightly because he is Inuk and had a criminal record. They believe something like this would never have happened to a non-Indigenous family.
“They didn’t care because he was a so-called criminal and because he was an Aboriginal. They didn’t give a shit about him,” Joan said through tears.
Amid the Every Child Matters movement, Elizabeth wonders how in 2022 something like this can still happen.
“We need closure, we need answers … my brother’s life matters, too,” she said.
The family is calling on the Quebec government to pay for their brother’s exhumation, as well as his repatriation to Happy Valley-Goose Bay so he can be buried next to his parents, where his three daughters can visit him.
Until then, they say they can only hope they’re the last of a string of Indigenous families to have to go through this.
In February, an Indigenous woman named Tara Niptanatiak died and was buried in Calgary the next month, unbeknownst at the time to her family in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut. In December, a similar situation happened to another Indigenous woman named Courtney Wheeler, again in Calgary.
“The system is failing Indigenous people of Canada, and [it] failed my brother big, big time,” said Tim, looking out toward the unmarked grave under which his brother lies.
“I will never, ever forgive them for it.”