Ontario coroner investigating death of woman at homeless camp in Cornwall

Mohawk woman helping daughter of Diane Hebert who died at the camp.

The daughter of a woman who died while living in a tent at a park in Cornwall, Ont., southeast of Ottawa, is turning to a Mohawk woman for support as she grieves her loss.

Kim Legault’s mother, Diane Hebert, 67, died at Pointe Maligne Park on the city’s waterfront on Nov. 4.

According to Legault, Hebert had Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, also known as COPD, which causes breathing problems.

“They discharged her out of the hospital because she didn’t have like a big, big problem, she just needed oxygen,” Legault said. Cornwall Community Hospital declined to comment on Diane Hebert’s death, citing patient confidentiality concerns.

The Ontario coroner’s office told APTN News that it’s investigating Hebert’s death.

Legault said her mother had been living at the camp with her and son-in-law, Keith Seyeau, while they searched for an apartment. She was admitted to the hospital in She was admitted to the hospital in August, and discharged in September.

For Legault and Seyeau, the loss of Diane Hebert also meant the loss of their new apartment.

The couple’s situation is typical of the fine line many people who live in unsafe conditions across the country are dealing with.

They’re currently living in a carport tent until they can access their own housing, away from people detoxing in temporary shelters like Cornwall’s Parisian Manor.

Legault said she, her mother and Seyeau were going to move into an apartment – but without the help of Hebert’s income assistance, they’re no longer able to afford the initial deposit. Legault and Seyeau receive income assistance from the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP), which they say is insufficient for a rental deposit.

“I have an apartment [available], the electricity is in my name, all the utilities are in my name, but we’re not able to have the first and last [month’s] rent, because before we are three of us, and now we’re only two of us,” said Legault.

Helping with trauma

Mohawk woman
A sign at the tent camp in Cornwall, Ont.

One person in the area who is helping people like Legault and Seyeau is Tina Point, a Mohawk woman from neighbouring Akwesasne. She brought the couple to the camp at Pointe Maligne Park and has been creating a safer community in this camp with her organization Unity Street Help Association (USHA) for people on the streets of Cornwall and Akwesasne.

“They’re having a hard time taking down their mother’s tent and I said ‘Just leave it, it’ll help you heal right now, just look at it,’” Point told APTN News. “Everything is all volunteer work and I’m just doing what my grandparents taught me to do and that’s just helping our people with their healing journeys and getting them to the next space.”

Seyeau said he’s found it particularly helpful for recovering from a recent traumatic period where he lost his son, got sober, and went to prison.

“I’m trying to find my way in life and Tina’s really trying to help us with that. The sacred fire, I learned so much more and I look at fire differently now. The elder that’s here that helps out, he’s a really great guy, and I learn more and more every day from him,” said Seyeau. “I feel like I have a soul again.”

Point said her organization has been receiving support from Cornwall residents.

“There’s been an elder man, he was non-Native, he was kind of camped out across from the police station, nobody could get him off there, so when I walked up to him and I asked him if he wanted to go see the sacred fire here, he got up right away, he said yes I do, and there was a truck ready and they packed him up. The people of Cornwall all saw this, they all tried, but they didn’t try our way so they can’t say it’s not working,” said Point.

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Point said that communication and collaboration with the city needs to be improved. She was under the impression the camp was going to be dismantled on Nov. 18, which Mayor Justin Towndale said was an unfounded rumour.

In public a statement issued on Nov. 6, Towndale said, “As the Mayor, I take full responsibility for this tragic incident as it happened on my watch. Nothing I can say or do will bring Ms. Herbert back. All I can do is pledge to do better.”

He said the city is working on repurposing an old school for more permanent housing for the homeless, and that the Parisian Manor will house people over the winter.

Towndale said that city outreach workers have also been visiting the camp to inform people of available resources, like income assistance provided by the United Way for those struggling to pay their rent deposit – something neither Point nor Legault and Seyeau were not aware of.

While skyrocketing housing prices and income assistance are regulated by the province, Towndale said that Ontario’s income assistance is insufficient in light of the current housing market.

“One of the things that we’re encountering is when it comes to ODSP [Ontario Disability Support Program] or Ontario Works for example, they base how much you get based on where you live and based on your rent requirements. Unfortunately, the numbers they’re using are lower than the actual real rent costs in the city of Cornwall, so we’ve flagged that as a concern,” he said.

Abandoned tents were removed by the city. Two carport tents set up by Point’s organization for shelter and Diane Hebert’s tent remain as of the writing of this article.

Tina Point intends on maintaining USHA’s presence at the camp until everyone has been rehoused and hopes to open a more permanent land-based healing centre in the future.

“I’m just taking it day by day because people keep coming in and like the government can’t deny me to do land-based healing with my people,” Point said.

Until then, Legault and Seyeau said they hope they will be able to move into their apartment before winter hits.

Those experiencing homelessness in Cornwall or Akwesasne are encouraged to contact the City of Cornwall or the Akwesasne band council for more resources. Unity Street Help Association is also available on Facebook. Towndale said funding for rental deposits is available at Cornwall’s Agape Centre.

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