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Montreal families frustrated as cemetery closure due to labour dispute stretches into 6th month

Despite opening on Mother’s Day, the Notre-Dame-des-Neiges cemetery, shuttered since January due to a labour dispute, will remain closed on Father’s Day. 

The cemetery opened last month for a single day to allow relatives to visit their loved ones’ graves but large lineups formed at the only open entrance. It was the first time the cemetery had been open to the public in months. 

“For sure it was really popular but it was a disaster,” said Éric Dufault, the president of the union representing office workers at the cemetery. “We were there on Mother’s Day and really it was a bad experience for the families.”

The cemetery’s closure, now in its sixth month, continues to frustrate families who cannot visit their loved ones’ graves or bury their relatives. More than 300 bodies are currently in storage awaiting burial as the labour dispute drags on.

“It’s time that both sides come to a conclusion,” said Michael Musacchio, whose daughter, Vanessa Musacchio, is buried in the cemetery. “You have to put humanity back in the equation.”

Musacchio, who has been pushing for the cemetery to open, said the grounds are overgrown and littered with branches that fell during an ice storm that hit Quebec on April 5.

“The cemetery is literally a disaster zone. It’ll take a number of months to clean up when the strike is resolved,” he said. 

Meanwhile, negotiations, with the cemetery’s maintenance and office workers on one side and management on the other, appear to have stalled.

Dufault said the main negotiation sticking point was management’s refusal to budge on two of the workers’ demands: a pay increase that includes back pay and workers’ desire to maintain or increase staffing levels.

Daniel Granger, spokesperson for the cemetery, said the non-profit that runs the site relies on revenue from the families of the deceased. It needs to be more efficient and be able to operate at a price that it can afford, he said. 

The impasse means the cemetery must remain closed, Granger said. The tree limbs and overgrown vegetation are hazardous to visitors, he said. A small team of managers was able to clear some branches in time for Mother’s Day, but there is still too much work to be done.

Tree branches block a path.
Some of the headstones at Notre-Dame-des-Neiges were damaged in the storm. Felled branches still block many of the cemetery’s paths. (Valeria Cori-Manocchio/CBC)

“We need our people back to do this cleanup,” he said. 

Cemetery management said in a statement that they had proposed a temporary truce to the strike to assist in the cleanup and allow the cemetery to reopen for a few days, but union leaders declined the offer. 

Dufault said the workers wanted to return and care for the site on a full-time basis — not just for a few days. 

Musacchio is urging the Quebec government to step in to bring the strike to an end. 

Quebec Labour Minister Jean Boulet said in a statement that he has appointed two mediators to help the parties reach a common agreement. 

“We will ensure that the process of finding solutions continues,” he said. “We will be prepared to take further steps if the parties fail to find a solution quickly. This conflict has gone on for too long.”

Meanwhile, Musacchio and the other families can only wait. 

“We’re not here to pick sides,” he said. “The workers have the right to strike. The employer has the right to negotiate. However, after six months of doing this and no resolution, bodies are piling up.”

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