‘Avoidable tragedy’: Quebec coroner’s inquest into death of Innu man who froze to death in 2021

"Avoid a situation like this in the future," says John Tessier, a community worker in Montreal, at the coroner's inquest into the death of Raphaël Napa André, an Innu man found dead in a portable toilet in January 2021. Alyssia Rubertucci reports.

By Alyssia Rubertucci

A Quebec coroner’s inquest continued Tuesday into the death of Raphaël Napa André, the 51-year-old Innu man found dead in a portable toilet in January 2021 — he had been seeking shelter from the cold, as he was part of the homeless community in Montreal.

Community workers that knew him testified at the hearing in Longueuil, saying Napa André was part of the family of local shelters.

“I was one of the last ones to see Raphaël on that night, so I think it was important for me to share that moment that I spent with him and what I went through on that day,” said Jonathan Lebire, director of Comm-un and former coordinator at PAQ 2 refuge.

It happened at the corner of Milton Street and Parc Avenue, steps away from the Open Door shelter after public health officials had ordered it to close overnight due to COVID-19 pandemic.

“We were forced to close at nine p.m. following our COVID outbreak at our center,” said John Tessier, former Open Door Shelter intervention worker and founder of Advocacy for Montreal. “We were asking people to leave. Raphaël was one of the last people to leave that night. He didn’t want to leave, but we had no choice. So it was really, really heartbreaking to find out the next morning that he had passed away.”

Montreal police determined his death wasn’t criminal and turned the investigation over to the coroner.

Tessier says this was an avoidable tragedy and one he warned might happen.

“The people on the ground, those of us who have an intimate knowledge, expertise with the people we’re serving, told the authorities, the powers that be, that if we were forced to close at 9 p.m., something tragic was going to happen and very likely somebody would die and sure enough, it happened,” he said.

Lebire says Napa André was turned away from the shelter he previously worked at because he refused to take a COVID-19 test. Lebire remembers his disposition.

“He was just a loving person. He was a good member of the community. He was super experienced. He was sharing his experience,” he said. “It’s somebody who I was surprised about, some people you kind of expect it’s going to happen. But with Raphaël, when I got that news I was totally shocked.”

On Tuesday, a doctor and nurse from the CHUM testified, as well as a toxicologist. The inquest is aiming to shed light on the the circumstances of Napa Andre’s death and propose solutions for to prevent a similar death.

“We’re here mostly for the honour of Raphaël and bring the truth of that,” said Lebire. “With my experience, I don’t believe these things are really going to make a change. Hopefully, maybe. But it’s all political now.

“We’re talking about Raphaël today, but since then I have 10, 12, 20 others that was the same story,” he added.

The hearings will continue into the end of next week and pick up again for two weeks in June.

“Raphaël was strong and resilient and free spirit,” Tessier said. “I just pray that his sacrifice can make changes and avoid a situation like this in the future.”

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