Remembering hundreds of Montreal seniors, one lovingly embroidered name at a time

More than 150 seniors have knitted and embroidered hundreds of scarves to commemorate their peers who died in long-term care homes in Montreal's Southwest borough during the first wave.

Montreal seniors knit colourful scarves to commemorate the lives of 251 long-term care residents lost to COVID

This is just a snapshot of the 251 names embroidered on handmade scarves by more than 150 seniors in and outside Montreal to commemorate those lost to COVID-19. (Verity Stevenson/CBC)

Éric, Rita, Michèle, Lasùlo, Pauline, Francesca, Irène. 

They knew them only by their first names. In fact, they didn't know them at all. 

But for about 150 seniors in Montreal's Southwest borough, the high numbers of deaths in their community's long-term care homes struck a deep chord. 

They were grieving and wanted to do something. 

So a variety of groups got together over Zoom on a Wednesday in April last year and they've continued to meet every week since. 

The online meetings yielded ideas about how to channel their frustration, sadness and powerlessness.

One of the members, Jean-Claude Duclos, also the founder ROPASUM, an umbrella group of Montreal seniors' organizations, remembered seeing a giant scarf knitted by the community of Cap-Santé, west of Quebec City, some decades ago. 

And so was born the idea of knitting a piece of scarf for each of the 251 people in southwestern Montreal who died in long-term care during the first wave of COVID-19 in the spring of 2020. 

"It was a way of immortalizing them," says Duclos.

They wanted to grieve but also to denounce the treatment of seniors.

"When we were knitting, we were thinking about all the people, all the elderly people that died, sometimes without even having their family, sometimes without basic hygiene care, sometimes without being fed even a glass of water," said Marie-France Lesperance, a former nursing assistant who participated with her Verdun-based knitting group. 

Francine Campeau helped recruit Lesperance after someone else reached out to her because she hosts a knitting group at the Comité d'éducation aux adultes de la Petite-Bourgogne et de Saint-Henri, a learning centre in the Southwest borough. 

"I thought it was so important to be able to visualize the extent of the disaster" in the CHSLDs, Campeau said. 

WATCH | Seniors in southwest Montreal knit hundreds of scarves to remember those lost to COVID-19

WATCH | Seniors in southwest Montreal knit hundreds of scarves to remember those lost to COVID-19

2 years ago
Duration 1:11
More than 150 seniors have knitted and embroidered hundreds of scarves to commemorate their peers who died in long-term care homes in Montreal's Southwest borough during the first wave.

Through word of mouth, the web of participants in the scarf project grew like a knitted scarf, notes Miriam Rouleau-Perez, a community CLSC worker who helped get the group the first names of the 251 people who died. 

"Everyone contributed with their experience, their knowledge. It's a scarf in the contribution itself. It's like a quilt," Rouleau-Perez said. 

The scarves project, dubbed "Le Foulard de la mémoire," which translates to "The memory scarf," in English, was part of two exhibitions the group created in the fall. Other seniors' groups, such as the Raging Grannies, contributed songs and poems dedicated to the seniors who died. 

One of the exhibitions included an actor reciting a poem in a wheelchair, in a setup that mimicked a long-term care room with a hospital bed covered in the scarves. Their vibrant colours stood in contrast to the grimness of the grief. 

The Foulard de la mémoire scarves were exhibited twice in the fall, once at the CEDA adult education centre in October and then again in a window exhibit in Verdun in November. (Submitted by Viviane Freedman)

"We felt angry, actually. I personally felt angry," said Viviane Freedman, who helped gather a group of knitters in her neighbourhood of Pointe-Saint-Charles.

Over the summer, her group met in one of its members' gardens, sitting two metres apart and sipping wine or "a little something stronger" as the sun fell on them. 

"We felt we were being put aside because we are no longer profitable … and yet we've got a lot to offer," Freedman said of the treatment of seniors in the province. 

She says she appreciates the Quebec government's creation of a day of commemoration March 11, but says "I think they were more or less obliged to create this anniversary." 

Freedman hopes the government will order a provincewide inquest into its long-term care system. She would also like to see improvements to home care, so more seniors can live at home longer.

The sense of powerlessness the seniors felt before the project eventually turned into a "solidarity spirit," Freedman says. 

Viviane Freedman's group of knitters in Pointe-Saint-Charles gathered in one of the members' gardens to make the scarves over the summer. (Submitted by Viviane Freedman)

"It was a way of creating relief," said Campeau. "We felt so powerless, so useless … so it was our way of contributing, of saying, 'We won't forget you.'" 

Campeau wanted to make sure there was a name on each scarf. It was harder to find embroiderers but she managed and says about 15 people worked long hours to get it done. 

The project even reached knitters in other Quebec regions who contributed scarves.

Some came with little notes in memory of a loved one who died of the virus. One that particularly moved Campeau was a scarf full of knots that represented the connections a person makes over a lifetime.

The group hopes to show the scarves again in a kind of roving exhibition, once things are safe enough.

They want to ensure their message and those 251 names live on. 

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