Peter Hester was last seen clinging to a five-gallon drum, trying to stay afloat in Hannah Bay after high winds and waves capsized the canoe he was travelling in with his friend Billy Shecapio. That was 1979. But now, after years of waiting, it seems like the family might get the news they’ve been hoping for: that Hester’s remains have been found and can be laid to rest.
Pauline Hester was five years old when her father died. Originally from Waskaganish but relocated to Moose Factory, the Hester family was back in Eeyou Istchee in August of 1979 visiting friends and family when Peter and Billy set out across the bay to Moose Factory and Moosonee to pick up supplies.
“They were supposed to come back the next day,” Pauline said. “But they didn’t come back. On their way back from Moose Factory, they had a boat accident. I don’t know exactly what happened.”
Her husband Charles Hester (from a different branch of the Hester family) says the boat was overloaded and was swamped in the choppy waves. Billy Shecapio was able to survive by holding on to the wreck, which was anchored and gradually came closer to land as the tide went out.
“Billy tried to rescue Peter by throwing him a rope,” said Charles. “But it was too far, he couldn’t get to him. That was the last time he saw Peter. I guess the tide took him out in the bay.”
Charles adds that if something like that happened today, there would be an enormous search and rescue team coordinated by Public Safety and the Eeyou Eenou police, who would likely work weeks or months before giving up.
“But at that time, the Cree communities weren’t set up,” he said. “So they just did a limited search.”
Last May, Waskaganish hunters finally stumbled across a skull in Hannah Bay, and not long after, the Ontario Provincial Police contacted Charles and Pauline. They already knew, however: they were eating dinner in the Waskaganish Lodge when the hunters returned and one of them came in to find them.
“He said that him and his friends found a skull, and they gave it to police,” Charles recalled. “The hunter was about the same age as Peter, so I think he hoped it was Peter’s, too, so the family could put the remains to rest and close this chapter of not knowing and all the things that come with it.”
Two months later, they got the call from the OPP. However, initial DNA testing did not provide any information the police could use, so they sent the skull to be tested at a second lab with more sophisticated equipment. That brought back the first piece of information: the skull was from a person who died around 1979.
“Some people from Moose Factory have said they were thinking of other people who got lost in the bay, where the remains were never found,” Charles said. “Even from Waskaganish, there was an older gentleman from our neighbourhood who lost his life on the bay. But most of the other ones happened in the 1980s.”
Police told them to contact their local police department, who would arrange a meeting to get DNA samples from Peter’s surviving siblings and his children. They have now spoken with the police and are waiting for the specific arrangements about when and how this will take place.
“A lot of people around town, friends and family of people, they all hope these are Peter’s remains, and they get closure,” Charles said.
It’s been a long wait for answers, especially for Pauline’s older siblings, who were in their teenage years when they lost their father, and for her mother, Annie Visitor.
“When she was told about this she’d already thought about it and picked out everybody who was going to be part of the memorial service, who was going to be singing the song, giving the message,” Charles said. “It shows that she’s been preparing for this for several years.”
But even the process of testing takes a long time – it’s been nearly a year since the OPP first contacted the Hesters, and they would like very much to get the final answers they’ve been waiting for.
“The whole family is really eager to find out,” Pauline said, “We’re hoping it’s him: we’ve been waiting 35 years now. What some of my family members are saying is if it’s really him, they’re going to stop looking. Every time they go down south, they look for our father. He didn’t drown, he’s still alive, he’s around somewhere. Every time they see somebody that resembles him, they think it’s him. But if this is really him, they can finally stop looking for our dad.”