Mother tells Quebec inquest she can’t fathom how her son could die in the cold

More than three years after her son’s death, Suzanne Chemaganish still can’t understand how he could have been allowed to die in the cold outside a homeless shelter in a big city like Montreal.

Chemaganish told an inquest on Wednesday her son Raphael André grew up in the woods with his Innu family in northern Quebec and was used to cold weather.

She said that in her village, people aren’t left outside in winter. “In our community, it’s cold,” she said. “When someone knocks, we open the door and let them in.”

Coroner Stéphanie Gamache is presiding over the inquest into the death of André, who was originally from Matimekush-Lac John, near the Labrador boundary. He was 51 when he died in January 2021 inside a portable toilet close to a Montreal homeless shelter he frequented.

The death came after Quebec had imposed a nighttime curfew to curb the spread of COVID-19, and after André’s usual shelter had suspended overnight services due to a plumbing issue and an outbreak of the virus.

After the death, a legal clinic representing homeless people sought and obtained a court order exempting homeless people from the curfew. The provincial government then agreed to formalize the exemption.

The inquest, which began in May, has heard from dozens of witnesses, including police officers, health and social services workers, and Indigenous leaders.

Chemaganish testified Wednesday alongside André’s brother, Ghislain André, as well as another family member who interpreted for her.

She told Gamache she hopes the inquest will result in more spaces and better treatment for people who are homeless, noting she had visited the shelter where her son stayed and saw folding beds with no sheets.

Both she and André’s brother questioned why there aren’t enough spaces for people to go, and wondered how they get enough to eat.

“Montreal is big, why can’t they find a house for them?” she asked.

Gamache agreed with the mother about the need for more services, but reminded her that over 108,000 people had benefited from a warming tent that was erected in a downtown Montreal square in André’s memory.

“That shows to what point Raphael touched people,” the coroner said. Chemaganish, in turn, expressed gratitude for the inquest and the coroner’s efforts to improve conditions for homeless people.

“She had felt she was alone,” the translator said.

The inquest is expected to finish later this month.

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