Montreal clinic with a social justice bent celebrates 50 years — and still going strong

The clinic does much of the standard work at community service centres in Quebec, but in other ways, it is downright radical.

The Pointe-Saint-Charles Community Clinic is the last citizen-run clinic, and it will fight to stay that way

Josée Ann Maurais, president of the board of directors, says she's proud of the work done by the Pointe-Saint-Charles Community Clinic. (Kate McKenna/CBC)

It's been a busy 50 years for a scrappy medical clinic in Montreal's Southwest borough, and despite occasional pressure from the provincial government, the people behind the project say they have no plans to slow down.

The Pointe-Saint-Charles Community Clinic is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, and in doing so, it's vowing to continue its work in the clinic and in the community.

"I think people who come to the clinic, they really appreciate the services," said Josée Ann Maurais, president of the board of directors.

It serves about 15,000 people and does much of the standard work at community service centres in Quebec — blood tests, pre- and post-natal care, flu shots.

But in other ways, it is downright radical.

Part of its mandate includes fighting the root cause of health issues. Over the years, the clinic has adopted a social justice mandate.

Watch the video below to see 50 years of the clinic, in photos:

The clinic hasn't shied away from criticizing the provincial government, which is where it gets its funding.

It publicly opposed accessory fees before they were banned in 2016. It has also launched a registry to track overbilling.

Criticism a strength, not a weakness

Criticizing the government might be seen as biting the hand that feeds, but Maurais says it's not a source of friction, but rather, a strength.

The clinic occupies a unique position, she explained, because it is run by citizens, not the bureaucracy.

"We are part of them, but we are not part of them. This allows us to make comments when we believe there's a need to make comments," said Maurais.

"We have been, over the years, quite successful."

Other victories include preventing a casino from being built in Pointe-Saint-Charles — something Maurais says would have been very bad for the community — and visiting schools to teach students how to properly care for their teeth.

A former MNA and longtime supporter says she would like to see other medical institutions modelled after the Pointe-Saint-Charles clinic.

"The clinic represents over 50 years of speaking out in defence of the economic and social rights of the most vulnerable," said Françoise David.

"They want to improve the living conditions in the neighbourhood."

Humble beginnings

The clinic was founded by McGill students who were concerned about the lack of adequate medical care for the residents of Pointe-Saint-Charles.

In the mid-1900s, Pointe-Saint-Charles was one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Quebec. Though gentrification has started driving up rent, it is still home to a large working-class population.

The area's economic history may have given rise to the rich social activism that still exists in the community today.

"Pointe Saint-Charles is a very special neighbourhood," said Maurais. "It's a tight community. People know each other and care for each other."

The Pointe-Saint-Charles Community Clinic is the last community clinic remaining in Quebec. (Kate McKenna/CBC)

The clinic sees itself as part of the fabric of the neighbourhood and has resisted any attempts by the province to take away its autonomy.

It is the last remaining community clinic in Quebec.

Maurais says the board of directors doesn't take for granted that they are the last ones standing.

There have been at least two efforts by the provincial government to assimilate the clinic into its network of community services centres (known by their french acronym, CLSCs), though on both occasions, the neighbourhood fought back and the clinic maintained its citizen-run status.

Still, there's always the fear the government will stop funding the clinic — which costs $8 million annually.

"We'll always have this in mind because we know that we need money to be able to we need the resources to be able to operate," she said.

"But we work hard to make sure that we maintain this [autonomous] status."