Quebec City's 'street nurse' fears city's most vulnerable could be deprived of 'dignified' burial

The Fondation Gilles Kègle Foundation in Quebec City will have to pay for twice as many funerals this year as it did in 2018 — a $100,000 increase it cannot absorb while fulfilling its main mission of feeding and caring for shut-ins.

Gilles Kègle has spent 33 years helping shut-ins, in life and in death, but funeral costs are climbing

Gilles Kègle has been visiting elderly, vulnerable people in Quebec City in their homes for the past 33 years. He set up his foundation in 1993. (Nahila Bendali/Radio-Canada)

On Friday, Gilles Kègle will gather his team of volunteers for a mass funeral at Quebec City's Église Saint-Roch, as he does every six months.

Kègle has composed eulogies for 43 people — many of whom he has never met.

"I just want to give them some dignity," he said. "They came into the world with dignity. They lost it along the way, so I want to give them back at least a little bit of it at the end."

The grassroots organization Kègle founded in 1993 pays for the funerals for the city's forgotten citizens — those without families to turn to and those who never worked long enough to have their funeral expenses covered by Quebec's pension plan, the Régie des rentes.

But with twice as many bodies in the Quebec City morgue left unclaimed this year as there were in 2018, Kègle is concerned his foundation will no longer be able to cover all the costs.

The Fondation Gilles Kègle's main mission is to deliver food and medicine to low-income, elderly people in Quebec City. 

Kègle and his volunteers are often their only support system. They are also sometimes the ones who find their clients in their homes after they've died.

"This year we have about 15 people who died at home — some who committed suicide," said Kègle, who is 76. "If only people knew what is happening behind closed doors."

The cost of a cremation and funeral runs up to $2,500 for every deceased person. The urns are then placed in a lot donated by the Lépine-Cloutier funeral home.

They came into the world with dignity. They lost it along the way, so I want to give them back at least a little bit of it at the end.- Gilles Kègle

Kègle also steps in when he gets a  call from the morgue that it has an unclaimed body.

Most years, around 40 people are laid to rest, thanks to the foundation. But Kègle said that number has now doubled; the population is aging, and the foundation doesn't have the $100,000 more it will cost to bury the dead this year.

"How am I going to make it work? What do I do?" Kègle asks.

'Hero of our social outcasts'

"We haven't gotten a government grant — zero — since May 31, 1993," the day the foundation was founded, said Marc Provost, who's managed the foundation's budget from the start.

However, since Kègle went public with the foundation's plight, donations have started pouring in.

"It's like a wave of happiness just hit us," said Provost, who spent Wednesday answering a phone that began ringing off the hook. He estimated around $20,000 has been pledged so far.

Kègle, 76, has a team of 40 volunteers, including nurses and a doctor, to rely on. (Radio-Canada)

Opposition parties at the National Assembly also took notice.

Sol Zanetti, the MNA for Jean-Lesage, asked the minister of health to recognize Kègle as "the hero of our social outcasts."

"It says a lot about our society. This is a sad situation, and we are all responsible for this," said Zanetti in question period Wednesday.

While the Coalition Avenir Québec government hasn't made a commitment to help the foundation, Health Minister Danielle McCann said her ministry will follow up.

"We are committed to support this person who dedicated so much to help others in particularly alarming situations," McCann said.

Meanwhile Kègle, who was made a knight of the Order of Quebec in 2012, said he is focused on the task at hand and hopes people will continue to support his cause.

"I've never taken a day off," he said. 

"I work from dusk till dawn, and I hope to continue another 20 years."

With files from Radio-Canada's Nahila Bendali


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