Following the announcement of a province-wide curfew, a first in the midst of Québec’s struggle against the spread of COVID-19, a flurry of controversy has ensued regarding the Québec government’s expectation that its homeless population comply.
Perhaps a curfew is what the province needs. This is certainly the stance of Premier François Legault, whose official announcement that the Québec government would be enacting a province-wide curfew took place on January 6th. However, regardless of whether the curfew is logical or illogical, it has problematic implications for the homeless community.
During the press conference, Premier Legault explained that there would be exceptions to the curfew, but warned that the curfew would otherwise oblige all Québecers to remain indoors, including Québec’s homeless population. Those who disobey may incur a fine ranging from $1,000 to $6,000. In an attempt to justify the inclusion of homeless people, Legault assured that “there is enough room available.”
Soon after the announcement was made, community advocates spoke up and voiced their concerns for the homeless community. Nakuset, executive director of the Native Women’s Shelter, is one such advocate who holds a different view from that of the Premier: “He seems to think there are enough shelters. It’s not even close to [being] enough space.” Nakuset is not alone in refuting Legault’s claims. Amanda Moniz of the Montréal Indigenous Community Network shares Nakuset’s concern, stating that “there are absolutely not enough beds.”
In an effort to support homeless individuals during this time, there has been an increase in accommodations provided to them. However, Montréal Mayor Valérie Plante admits that the city is still experiencing nights where shelters are unable to provide a sufficient number of beds. From community advocates to municipal politicians, there seems to be a clear consensus: Legault was wrong to claim there is enough room for Québec’s homeless population to seek refuge in shelters.
To address the lack of beds in Montréal, two new shelters are opening at the Pierre-Charbonneau sports arena and the TAZ indoor skatepark, which are intended to provide 112 and 150 beds, respectively. However, sufficient availability does not necessarily resolve the matter, as there are often eligibility requirements that individuals must satisfy in order to access these spaces. Requirements can include sobriety, mental stability, and being COVID-symptom free.
As one might expect, the pandemic only further complicates the matter. Due to the nature of the virus, individuals are at greater risk of contracting the virus when in close proximity to one another and while shelters have measures put in place to prevent the virus’ spread, the risk cannot be completely eliminated. It is therefore understandable as to why some individuals may choose to avoid shelters, especially given the COVID-19 outbreak among Montréal’s homeless population in recent weeks. As a result of the curfew, those who choose to stay outside as a means of protecting their health are no longer afforded that option.
Outcry over the death of Raphaël “Napa” André, a Naskapi-Innu man from the community of Matimekush-Lac John in Québec’s Cote-Nord region, has prompted multiple government actors to request leniency for the homeless population during the curfew. Among those who have called upon the Premier to change course are Mayor Valérie Plante and Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller. Plante voiced her desire for the provincial government to exempt homeless individuals from the curfew, finding it to be even more difficult to access resources with curfew’s imposition. Reiterating Plante’s call, Miller urged the provincial government to provide amnesty for the homeless population, saying that “we must show more humanity” towards people without housing.
André’s tragic death occurred on January 16th, one week after the curfew was first put into effect. Why? He froze to death while seeking shelter in a portable toilet after the government’s callous decision to order the Open Door, a drop-in centre André frequented often, to close its doors at 9:30 p.m.
Premier Legault has cautioned the public to not associate André’s death with the curfew, however, it is difficult to fathom how André’s death could not be attributed to it. Had the Open Door been allowed to stay open, André would have been in an environment that is poised to aid during medical emergencies. Moreover, the cause of death bears no weight on the fact that the government forced the centre to limit their services in a time when people need these services most. Rather than addressing the needs of the centre to ensure it can provide its services safely, the government chose the easy route by ordering the centre to close early. Since this tragedy, it has been allowed to reopen for 24 hour service.
Legault has expressed his dismay concerning criticism over the government’s decision. He states that he has asked the opposition to provide him with one example of a police officer unfairly issuing a fine, to which he claims he received none. Leader of the Official Opposition of Québec Dominique Anglade challenges this statement, claiming that Legault had received knowledge within the hour of a homeless man reportedly “receiv[ing] a ticket while on his way to an overnight shelter.” Regardless of whether Legault did in fact receive the report in time, it is a choice to be insensitive to those who are most vulnerable. It is a choice to be ignorant to those who are not afforded the same privileges as you are, and it is a choice to abandon those who need your help most. These are the choices the Québec government continues to make.
Edited by Ryan Brown.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association.
Featured image obtained via PixaBay.