Legault is Still Responsible for Creating a Humanitarian Crisis

A Court ruling does not exonerate his misstep

On January 6, Québec’s provincial government held a press conference where it announced a province-wide curfew. In the question period, a reporter asked Premier François Legault if he had plans to address the danger created by the curfew for Montreal’s homeless community. “What’s your game plan?” she asked.

It took him less than 20 seconds to answer the question. “We want the homeless to stay inside,” he replied. “There is enough room available [in shelters].”

In mid-January, after wide public and political opposition to his decisions, a reporter asked Legault if he envisioned lifting the curfew for homeless people. “If we change the rules and say we can not give a ticket to somebody who is saying that he is homeless, you may have some people that will pretend to be homeless,” replied Legault.

“We do not have enough capacity in the [shelter] system to accommodate everyone with all of their needs,” says President and CEO of Old Brewery Mission, James Hughes, in an interview with the author. “The Premier is not right to say that there are enough places. We have enough for most people, but not for all.”

The Premier’s move is draconian. The curfew is understandable given the current state of the pandemic – extreme times call for extreme measures. But what I do critique is Legault’s blatant disregard and apathy concerning the homeless population, and the court ruling does not exonerate his past apathy. He should be held accountable for the fear and unnecessary loss of life created by his refusal to exempt the unhoused.

As Hughes puts it, “homelessness doesn’t stop at 8 p.m.” Yet, this seems to be the way Legault sees it.

If actions do speak louder than words, our Premier showed us how unable he was to deal with a humanitarian crisis he himself was worsening, had the court not intervened.

Legault is willingly turning a blind eye on a chronic situation he clearly understands, all for political expediency. Because of his lack of empathy for the most vulnerable members of society, he has no problem sending out the police – a branch of the state that legitimately uses violence – to enforce public health measures. The use of police is not a sign of leadership; it exposes his unidimensional strong-man mentality, and that he favours punishment over addressing the root cause of a problem: lack of housing and social support.

Facing mounting criticism for his stubborn refusal to exempt the homeless population, the Premier proved how far he was willing to go to defend his decision.

In mid-January, a reporter challenged Legault to see if he envisioned lifting the curfew for homeless people. On what ground was this claim rooted? Could Legault – or someone from his cabinet – confirm this with tangible facts? After all, this has been a matter of life or death. That is what we saw more than a week ago with the death of Raphael Andre, an unhoused Innu man.

The police are not equipped or trained to deal with social or public health crises, they’re a dangerous solution for people that need help. In other words, a ‘shock therapy’ of public health measures that include police crackdowns – if the curfew is not respected – are not the way to go when dealing with people in distress, and further puts them at risk.

This is an opinion shared by both Hughes and Joannie Veilleux, a community organizer at Le Réseau d’aide aux personnes seules et itinérantes de Montréal (RAPSIM). “Presently, the issue is dealt with as a public security matter by the police, who are using oppressive measures,” says Veilleux. “For us [at RAPSIM], this is not the answer. On the contrary, [these measures are] possibly more dangerous for the unhoused people.”

Legault promised that police officers would not be ticketing the unhoused unnecessarily. He subsequently said that they will be “using their judgment” and do a “very good job.” However, “there are thousands of police officers, and are they all going to act out [of good faith]?” Hughes asks. “Are they all going to act with the humanity that’s necessary regarding this issue? The answer is obviously not.”

Before the court ruling, at least six unhoused people had been fined. That is six too many.

According to Veilleux, some police officers have allegedly torn up attestations for traveling during the curfew, given by community organizations like CACTUS.

The unseen effects of the curfew on the unhoused population

This year, drug overdoses skyrocketed. The curfew is aggravating this trend as drug users are left with even fewer resources. According to numbers provided by Urgence-Santé, monthly interventions for overdoses have doubled and even quadrupled in comparison with last year.

According to Veilleux, this grim tendency isn’t set to fade away with – especially when the curfew was in effect. She explained that curfew and social distancing measures made it more difficult for drug users to use in groups, meaning that overdoses can be deadly. Veilleux added that drug dealers, fearing the curfew, are staying inside after 8 p.m. Therefore, unhoused drug users might buy more drugs than they usually would to avoid running out. Unable to safely consume their drugs at safe injection sites – closed because of the curfew – the risks are high.

“Outreach workers, who are the ones in direct contact with the unhoused, have a harder time finding them [on the streets]. That’s a worrisome trend,” says Veilleux. Community street workers, unable to track their clients, are constantly tormented by the possibility to never see them again.

Drug users are not the only ones who suffer from Legault’s curfew.

“It is also important to highlight the risk that women are facing,” says Veilleux. “Since the streets are deserted, and unhoused people need to hide even more, women are often more isolated. Hence, they can suffer from physical and sexual violence.”

In what world is it considered logical to terrorize marginalized populations and fine them when shelters are full, or for refusing to sleep in overcrowded shelters and put themselves at risk for COVID-19? What is the point for the Legault government to do this? The only outcome this curfew has had on our homeless population is keeping them on the streets.

Raphael André, a 51-year-old Innu man, froze to death in a portable toilet overnight on January 16, steps away from a curfew-closed shelter. This is a consequence of Legault’s curfew at the expense of the unhoused population. André’s death could have easily been avoided.

Legault’s decision was inherently flawed; it forced homeless people to become more vulnerable, while preventing them from accessing shelters. Why is it that Legault can make an exception for dogs to get walked, but not for members of our society during a global pandemic? What Legault should have done instead are substantial solutions to provide a humane right to the unhoused.

The outcomes of the curfew on the unhoused population

The only outcome I can see emerging from this is further debilitation of a community already in crisis. Legault makes decisions that effectively touch us all.

Working as a volunteer in a listening centre, I can say that the curfew heightened the emotional distress of both marginalized communities and frontline workers (who risk their own health).

“Since the pandemic hit, my mood has been a bit of a struggle,” says Holy Ann White Gromley, volunteer coordinator at Face à Face. “A lot of stress and anxiety every day. With COVID, our clientele’s anxiety has gone through the roof, and that weighs on the team as well.”

In a way, it seems as though COVID-19 is a catalyst for the proliferation of pre-existing social issues in our society.

Francine Tremblay, a part-time Sociology faculty member at Concordia University shares the same point of view. After working and volunteering for 20 years with marginalized communities in Montreal, she observes that the pandemic has only magnified issues that have never been properly dealt with in the past.

Times of crises exacerbate social issues that already exist, yet, by having a closer view of the problem – we can dissect it, understand it, assess it, and ultimately solve it.

For Tremblay, the problem is not solely about money (or the lack thereof), but about poor communication and the inadequate administration of the issue on the part of the government. “We need to listen to the people in the field, [the community organization]. They are the ones with the expertise. They are the ones who understand the problems,” says Tremblay. For her, the way to solve the issue is to get city officials, chiefs of police, and community organizations together. The goal is to allow all three actors to engage in talks and genuinely listen to one another. It is only then that concrete changes can happen, says Tremblay.

It would be counterproductive for the government to ignore community organizations and attempt to ‘solve’ humanitarian crises by themselves. After all, these grassroots groups have been working in the field to take care of our citizens. They have valuable experience, and also, many of them are funded by public money already.

But what can we do now? I have asked this question to everyone I have interviewed and unanimously they told me three main things.

First, go volunteer. If you have some time, and you can squeeze in a couple of hours of volunteering in your week, do it! Get in touch with the organizations in your vicinity and ask them if they need any help. Also, the website JeBenevole.ca is a good place to start.

Then, donate. Of course, cash support is always welcome, but you can also call the shelters nearest to you, and ask them what they need. Since it is wintertime, Hughes says that warm socks, winter garments, undergarments, winter coats, hats, and gloves are all items that the unhoused population need.

And lastly but not least, the way you interact with unhoused people goes a long way. If you feel like it, strike a conversation with them. Act with respect. Everyone needs and deserves human dignity, period.

I understand that we are in dire times, and I recognize (to a certain extent) his efforts. However, we need not let our social net fray and tear. If the government will not do their job, we, the citizens, must.

Homelessness is a complex and multifaceted subject; it demands, at its core, empathy, and understanding. It is not just about having ‘more beds’.

Special thanks from the author: I’d like to personally thank James Hughes, Joannie Veilleux, Francine Tremblay, Katherine Vehar, Holy Ann Gromley White, and my peers at Face à Face. This piece wasn’t a personal one, but rather a collective one; I was merely the connective thread that sewed all your voices together. I hope I have done you justice.