Montreal Homeless Encampment Sues Quebec Government
Facing another eviction notice, the plaintiffs include a pregnant woman, a cancer patient and a man with a terminal illness
From the moment people started pitching tents under the Ville Marie Expressway six years ago, they were living on borrowed time.
The camp has been subject to police raids, moved from Ville Marie to Westmount and it’s come under attack from muggers, thieves and vigilantes who want the unhoused to leave their corner of the city. In that time, at least two people died under the elevated highway.
Throughout its short existence, the encampment has been razed and rebuilt too many times to count. No one ever feels secure enough to plan on staying more than a few weeks at a time because it always seems like they were on the verge of being driven back onto the streets.
But the camp struck back on Thursday.
In the face of yet another eviction, the 20 people who live under Ville Marie Expressway are taking the Quebec government to court. Their attorneys filed a suit in Superior Court Thursday morning, claiming that the latest attempt to raze the camp is a violation of the Charter rights to life, liberty, safety and dignity.
The plaintiffs include a pregnant woman, a man with stage 3 lung cancer, a man with a terminal blood illness and a couple who weren’t allowed to live together in Montreal’s emergency shelter system. They’re asking the court to grant them an injunction against Quebec’s Transport Ministry, which wants to clear the camp by the end of the month so it can make repairs to the underpass.
“I’m fighting to stay alive every day. I camp out under a highway every night and go through radiation therapy every week because I am a grandfather now,” said Michel Chabot, one of the plaintiffs. “I want to live, I have something to live for but I don’t know what’ll happen to me if I have to leave this camp.”
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Before his stint under the highway, Chabot was driven out of a camp in Chinatown last summer and evicted from another encampment the previous spring. Evicting him didn’t solve anything, it just pushed Chabot to go deeper into the margins. He’s survived nights where the temperatures dropped 30 degrees below zero, relying on the heat from a rusty camping barbecue to keep him alive.
Encampments like the one under the Ville Marie Expressway have been on the rise since the spring of 2020, when Montreal saw a massive spike in its unhoused population.
Back then, at the very beginning of the pandemic, the combination of a flatlined economy and shelters that suddenly had to turn people away to respect social distancing sent hundreds more people onto the streets. About 100 of them wound up in a mega camp near the commercial ports at the southern edge of Montreal.
Citing safety concerns and a number of small fires that broke out in the encampment, Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante allowed the city’s riot squad to clear out the dozens of tents that lined Notre Dame Street. Though the cops were accompanied by social workers who would try to find residents a new place to live, many if not most of them moved to smaller camps across the island.
“This is happening all over Canada, it’s the reality in almost every major city across the country,” said Marie-Josée Houle, Canada’s Federal Housing Advocate. “Encampments are the physical manifestation of our housing crisis. And it’s not just in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. You’re seeing camps in cities like St-Jérome, Prince George, Victoria, Ottawa, Edmonton, you’re seeing people in the far north living in hunting shacks. We can’t afford to keep ignoring this.”
Houle, who works with Canada’s Human Rights Commission, was appointed as the first-ever Federal Housing Advocate by the Privy Council last year. Now she’ll be heading up a commission to gather information about encampments across the country. She visited the Ville-Marie camp earlier this month.
“Housing is the most basic right,” Houle told The Rover. “And not just four walls and a roof either. It has to be habitable, it has to be safe, it has to be somewhere close to resources that the person needs and community. When those conditions aren’t met, people form camps. They make their own community.”
With inflation and an out-of-control rental market, it’s getting harder to find housing for people who live on the streets.
“We found an apartment for one of our clients recently but it’s (25 kilometres away) in Pointe-aux-Trembles,” said David Chapman, who runs Resilence Montreal, a shelter near the encampment. “That’s all the way across the island, where she’ll be separated from her community, from the shelter where she eats her meals and gets medical attention when she needs it. But in this market, what other choice does she have?”
Adding another degree of difficulty into the mix, many of the camp’s residents and half of Resilience Montreal’s clients are Indigenous. Most of them are either residential school survivors or people who grew up in the foster care system, withstanding incredible acts of abuse at the hands of our governments. Their path out of poverty requires solutions that can address the trauma they suffered and help them find some sense of community in a city where Indigenous people account for less than 1 per cent of the population.
Earlier this month, the city launched its first-ever permanent housing shelter for unhoused Indigenous people. Maison Ahkwà’tsire can house up to 22 people, it provides them with access to mental health, cultural services and a managed alcohol program so people struggling with addiction don’t go into withdrawal.
The project took years to put together and relies on funding from the federal, provincial and municipal governments. But while it’s a step in the right direction, the need for access to safe housing in Montreal’s streets is at critical levels. At last count, some five years ago, Montreal’s unhoused population was roughly 3,000. That number has likely grown by hundreds if not 1,000 people, according to sources at city hall.
A Superior Court judge is expected to make a decision on whether to grant an injuction against the Ville Marie eviction next week.
The lawsuit — filed by Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt — is backed up by testimonials from medical professionals who say that displacing the camp without providing adequate housing for residents will put their lives at risk.
But even legal recognition of the camp will not ensure the survival or safety of its residents.
“These people are exposed. Exposure to the elements, exposure to violence, in Vancouver we had violence and threats directed at people in encampments,” said Houle. “We saw cases where, in some areas, people would put signs up that said if the encampments were not cleared, vigilantes were gonna put fuel on them to light the camp on fire. Some of these camps had some form of legal recognition but that doesn’t change people’s attitudes.”
There have been a number of attacks on the encampment over the years.
In 2020, when someone came into camp wielding an axe, Nicolas Bonneau and his dog Tommy chased the assailant away. The two were an indispensable part of the community, Bonneau providing survival expertise he’d acquired during his time in the military and Tommy keeping watch over the camp. When Bonneau died of an overdose last summer, it devastated his friends and neighbours. It also left the camp more vulnerable to theft and muggings.
Over the years, people have wandered into camp with flashlights, screaming at residents as they slept and the police make semi-regular incursions under the Ville-Marie Expressway. Lately, with a spike in the sale of crystal meth at nearby Atwater Métro, people are noticing more theft than usual under the highway.
“It’s brutal, those dealers are making people crazy out here,” one resident said.
But through it all, the camp lives on. When I visited last week, Chapman was mediating a dispute over one resident’s habit of hoarding construction materials and leaving food out in the open — which attracts rats from up the hill in Westmount.
“The rats are relentless, they’ll chew your tent apart for a cracker,” said another resident, who did not want his name published. “We have to come up with a solution to people leaving their food out because someone’s gonna end up getting bit by a goddamn rat. If it hasn’t happened already.”
Though voices were raised, Chapman calmed things down and convinced the offending party to offload some of his stuff. Throughout the years, residents have learned from mistakes that put the camp in danger. After Marc Crainchuk froze to death under the highway in 2017, people started pitching in to get propane-heaters. Bonneau’s overdose death led to the camp stocking up on Naloxone — a life-saving drug that counteracts the effects of fentanyl.
It is this sense of community that keeps the residents under Ville-Marie Expressway alive.
“Being unhoused, what that means is every day, what you need to survive you carry on your back,” Houle said. “Not only are you carrying this weight, you face hostility everywhere you go. And you may not have had a good night sleep, you might just want to sit somewhere and rest but you're not allowed to. You can’t sit and rest, you can’t lay down and sleep so you find a place to hide. You live under a bridge just so you can put your guard down and rest, just so you can feel human again.
“People do find community. People who protect each other, friends, neighbours or just people who need each other to weather a bad situation. Where can you get food? Where can you get fuel? Maybe together you’ll clean up or together you’re gonna stand and say ‘no, that predator is not allowed to be around.’
“When encampments are razed, they lose that.”