There are photos of Émilie Arsenault’s two children scattered all over her home.
Lined up in white frames are candid shots taken in a happier time, like a photo from an apple orchard, where Arsenault’s eldest son, Olivier, wraps his mother and younger brother in a bear hug.
In another frame is a solo shot of Arsenault’s youngest son, Alex, gleaming as he clutches an apple just big enough for his two-year-old fist.
Though their memory is marked everywhere, in a sit-down with APTN News, Arsenault said few reporters actually ask about them.
“Olivier was a very playful boy – a little mischievous, but shy in his moments. He was my comfort. I always say Olivier was my comforting child,” Arsenault explained.
“Whereas Alex was my sunshine. He just exploded [with joy], and he left a mark on others. He was really a little ray of sunshine.”
Arsenault has granted a few media interviews following the deaths of her young sons in October 2020, but she’s speaking out now to allege youth protection services failed her family.
She is now seeking $2 million dollars in restitution from the Quebec government, according to a legal notice served last week to the Quebec’s Minister of Youth Protection and the province’s Health and Social Services Ministry.
“We need to make an impact. Things need to change. The government needs to open its eyes,” Arsenault said. “Our goal is change.”
The bodies of Olivier, 5, and Alex, 2, were found on Oct. 13, 2020, in a home in Wendake, a Huron-Wendat First Nation territory near Quebec City.
Their father, an Innu man from Uashat mak Mani-Utenam in Quebec’s Cote-Nord, was charged with two counts of second-degree murder, and is expected to be tried by a jury this fall.
On the night of their deaths, Arsenault recalls feeling shocked – but unsurprised.
“I was disconnected – I just wasn’t there,” she said. “I called my mother, and the only thing I could say was ‘he did it, he did it,’ and it was at that moment I started crying.
“I had been worried for the safety of my children. So it was a fear I had. It crossed my mind at times.”
In a lawyer’s letter sent April 22, Arsenault accused Quebec’s youth protection service of failing to act despite the fact the agency had been allegedly contacted three times prior to her children’s deaths.
According to the letter, child welfare services had been alerted at least three times by a hospital worker, provincial police and the mother, between May 2018 and January 2020.
Valerie Assouline, the lawyer representing Arsenault, says youth protection workers did not visit the family at home after any of the calls, adding that the protection service decided to close the files involving the family without taking further action.
However, the details of those calls to youth protection services are subject to a publication ban due to the ongoing court process.
“We cannot go into details into the events that led to the signals – but what I can say is that when it will be public, you will understand how unbelievable that it took that long, and that at the end we said ‘sorry, we cannot help you – we’re closing the file,’” Valerie Assouline, a child welfare lawyer working with Arsenault, said in an interview with APTN.
The system, she says, needs to be held responsible for its failures.
“If you go to a hospital and you are not treated, or a doctor fails in responding or in treating you correctly – you can sue him,” Assouline added. “So why can’t we sue the government for not responding – for not really offering the services that were proper to protect the children, which are the most vulnerable in our society. Why not?”
Assouline represents other families in similar circumstances, including the mother of a seven-year-old girl from Granby, Que., whose 2019 death triggered a widespread re-examination of the province’s youth protection system.
A commission on children’s rights and youth protection, dubbed the ‘Laurent Commission,’ released a 552-page report last May, saying the girl’s death was a collective failure of Quebec society.
Assouline said junior health minister Lionel Carmant was “very aware” of the problems in the youth protection system, but didn’t act quickly enough.
Arsenault also questions whether the report – or Quebec’s recent reform of its youth protection law – will have a lasting impact.
“They ask for an inquiry report every time, but they have no use. And it’s the population who suffers for it,” she said.
Assouline said the system underplays allegations of intimate partner violence, often categorizing it as a “parental conflict” instead of the risk factor it is.
Arsenault says she experienced this directly when she made the third – and final – complaint to youth protection services.
“I know when a parent sounds the alarm, it’s not taken seriously on its own,” she said. “But I told myself there were two other notifications made before. My entourage were really encouraging me, like ‘do it now. It’s the time.’”
Assouline said that if the government doesn’t respond to the letter, the next step is to file a lawsuit.
She said she recognizes the $2 million her client is asking for is a higher figure than is usually demanded in such cases, but she said an “exemplary” judgment is needed to ensure a similar situation never happens again.
“We could’ve saved their lives,” Assouline said. “But what else could [Arsenault] have done? She did everything she could.”
Arsenault, meanwhile, tells APTN that she’s reached an emotional “high” since the death of her sons.
With the support of family and friends, she said she’s finally undertaking her Bachelor’s degree in education in hopes of eventually becoming an elementary school teacher.
As Arsenault tells it, no financial restitution from the province will ever replace what’s already been lost.
“The amount of money – it could’ve been one dollar or ten million dollars. It doesn’t bother me. Nothing can square to the loss of my children.”
Quebec’s Minister of Youth Protection Services declined APTN’s request for comment.
An email to the province’s Health Ministry seeking a response went unanswered by deadline.
With files from The Canadian Press.