With inquest into Quebec care homes, coroner aims to 'better protect human life'

A probe into some of the deaths that occurred in Quebec care homes during the first wave of the pandemic starts Monday. In the first stage, around 15 people are expected to testify about deaths that occurred at CHSLD des Moulins in Terrebonne, north of Montreal.

Inquest will determine the causes, circumstances of the deaths and provide recommendations on prevention

The inquest will first look into the circumstances surrounding the deaths of residents at CHSLD des Moulins, a private care home in Terrebonne north of Montreal. (Marie-Michèle Lauzon/Radio-Canada)

A coroner's inquest began Monday delving into 53 deaths that occurred at long-term care homes in Quebec last year, at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lawyer Géhane Kamel is presiding over the inquest with the assistance of Dr. Jacques Ramsay, a coroner with extensive medical training. 

In her opening remarks, Kamel said each person's case allows them to examine how the establishment handled the pandemic, and the support or supervision provided by regional or provincial authorities.

The goal is not to determine criminal or civil responsibility, she said, but rather to look at the circumstances of the deaths and provide recommendations on how to prevent them in the future.

Kamel said she hopes the recommendations "will better protect human life, and particularly those of seniors living in CHSLDs or RPAs, among the most vulnerable people in our society."

Lucille Gauthier died April 12, 2020, at CHSLD des Moulins in Terrebone. She was 87. (Centre funéraire régional Joliette)
She also pointed out that people who died in public or private seniors' residences but did not have COVID-19 still died in conditions that were, in some cases, "deplorable."

The first stage of the probe will feature testimony about Lucille Gauthier, 87, who died last April at CHSLD des Moulins in Terrebonne.

Gauthier's daughters, Diane and France Brissette and their lawyer, Patrick Martin-Ménard, believe Gauthier died of thirst and hunger — which could have been prevented, had the province not banned caregivers from seeing their loved ones at the time, they say. 

"It was foreseeable that we would find ourselves in a situation where there would be people dying of hunger and thirst. We knew it [would happen]," Ménard told Radio-Canada ahead of the proceedings.

More than 60 per cent of the province's COVID-19 deaths in the first wave occurred in public or private long-term care homes, many of which were plagued by chronic staffing shortages long before the pandemic hit. 

Hearings on CHSLD Herron delayed

The inquest was supposed to begin in February by looking into deaths at CHSLD Herron in Dorval, where 47 people died in the first wave of the pandemic. 

However, audiences about Herron were postponed until September because a criminal investigation into what happened there is still underway.

The deaths that will be investigated during the inquest meet the following criteria: 

  • The death occurred while the person was living in a CHSLD, private seniors' residence or a residential institution for vulnerable people or those who have lost some degree of autonomy.
  • The death occurred between March 12 and May 1, 2020.
  • The coroner's office was alerted to the death because of its violent nature or because of the possibility that negligence contributed to the death.

In all, the inquest will address what happened at seven institutions — five in the Montreal area, one in Shawinigan and one in Lévis — as well as the provincial response to outbreaks in CHSLDs. 

Public audiences are expected to be held until November.

with files from Radio-Canada


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