A heart in November


Donald Tremblay bursts into Accueil Bonneau. Cap screwed on a benevolent head, eternal neck scarf, backpack stuffed with documents. He makes his way between the boarders, hello, hello, hello …

Yves Boisvert
Yves Boisvert
The Press

He finally rushes into an office. Two law students are already there. The Traveling Legal Clinic can begin work.

A job that consists of going to shelters in Montreal to listen to legal problems of all kinds, and to show the shortest way to a solution.

"I had already volunteered in shelters, but you can not understand until you walk with them. The system is not so adapted to their reality … "

He realized that if we want to help this clientele by calling them to appointments, it's a waste of time. You have to go there, in the shelters. So every day, he arrives in a shelter with his team, his phones and his papers.


The first user that morning (not a "customer") is a man in his thirties, arrived from the Caribbean at 6, but still "permanent resident". He pled guilty a little bit too quickly to a charge of criminal harassment and received a notice of eviction.

A conviction for a crime with a maximum sentence of 10 years or more entails an automatic expulsion from the country, even if the judge inflicted only three days.

"I thought that I pleaded guilty to death threats, I did not harass, I made threats … Me, I thought that it took something very serious to be expelled, I do not know, how to import a ton of coke …

A banal story of chicane with the concierge of his building – from which he was expelled, that's why he is on the street.

"- We have to move fast. Did your lawyer know your status?

– Yes.

– Did he tell you the consequences?

– No !

– Well, there are two trains running here. One, the criminal record. We will try to have your plea withdrawn and re-trial. If we win, the eviction can be canceled. If we lose, there is a possible humanitarian appeal …

– Yeah. OKAY. At the same time, I say to myself: I come from a beautiful country, there are beaches …

– Look, it's a lot of work, all that, so if you're not interested in fighting, tell it right away!

– Yes, yes, it's just that if it's the will of God … »

The students open a file. Donald does not have the right to give legal advice; he contacts two lawyers, sets appointments. We'll make sure he goes there.

This is also the work of this clinic: take the users by the hand to simply take them to an appointment at the court, the lawyer, the Regie du logement …

This clinic, Donald had the idea during his law studies at UQAM.

"To apply the rules stupidly for someone in the street, it creates incredible injustices, in addition it creates folders unnecessarily. They are given a ticket, they can not pay it, it accumulates … They are summoned to the court, they forget, we issue a warrant, we stop them … We impose them as a condition not to drink, a police officer passes two days later, the guy feels the alcohol, he is sent back to prison … What seems simple is often a mountain for them. "

A user had lost his ATM card. He goes to the bank. Already, we are staring at him. When, moreover, he calls for a counter card without providing any identification, he is turned away quickly enough …

Except that in the 1319 files opened for five years, a "documentary trust" was created: copies of personal documents, etc. A student returned to the bank with the homeless, he regained access to his account.

"He was dancing in the street! "


Milan had stopped taking heroin, he had a supervised apartment, his life was finally in order.

He was in the subway. A man was staring at him. It must be said that with his 190 cm, his mouth toothless, his skull balding, it does not go unnoticed. The man who stared at him went out to the same station as him. Milan pretends to film him. The two men are going in the same direction. Milan goes to the Old Brewery Mission, the other man in the courthouse, across the street: he was a policeman.

The policeman identified him. Milan has been accused of harassment. He missed appointments at the court. It was stopped years later. He was imprisoned for a weekend. He did not have access to his daily doses of methadone. He was in panic, all shaking, dizzy when he arrived in court. He pleaded guilty without thinking after a brief discussion with the lawyer. He understood only later that he would be deported to the Balkans.

The clinic joined lawyer Helena Lamed, a former professor at McGill, who spent weeks volunteering on the case.

The Court of Appeal accepted the withdrawal of the finding of guilt. A trial date was set and the Crown withdrew the charge for lack of evidence.

"This guy would be dead if he had been deported. He is not a criminal. "

That's also their job: to redo what was not done in these fast-paced court sessions where "these people" often do not even have a chance to argue a defense.


We meet Monique at the Old Brewery Mission. She has a career as a freelance journalist. Big depression. She sold her house. She put everything in the warehouse. There was "hundreds of thousands of dollars". But she had lost the card. She ended up in a shelter. She did not pay the rent. The owner put everything up for sale and bailed all his life for a debt of $ 795.

"I am depressed, I am on the ground, annihilated … But the doctor said to me:" Fights! "Then I fight. "

Donald has found a lawyer. A formal notice is prepared.

"You have to prove a fault, Monique. But she's working on it. "


Lucas just had a question for Donald.

"If a police officer shot me, can I get IVAC (Compensation for Victims of Crime)?

– Tell me what happened … »

Lucas was angry at people in his neighborhood. He threw a rock in their window. They responded by beating him. He went to put shit on their door. They locked him at home and gave him a beating. They stole his phone and filmed the scene.

Lucas bought a gun and went to threaten them. They called the police. He escaped. A policeman fired, wounded him … He was arrested. He said he was beaten. We did not believe it.

Some time later, he buys a new phone. It connects. Poof! The video images of his sequestration appear from his cloud … The neighbors were arrested.

Well, for the IVAC, we forget that, but there is an investigation into the policeman who shot him …


"They're going to screech me in," said Francois. That means Christmas in prison … "

The man was charged with kidnapping in a regional palace.

"Sequestration! I just held a door so that the girl would not hit me with a stove. With my file, I'm going to hang around for a year, that's for sure! "

His file is a series of robberies, break-ins to buy drugs, there are pages and pages, months and months of prison which, put end to end, make a ten years on a life of fifty and a few.

" What happened ?

– It's a guedaille … "

He turns to the students with an embarrassed smile.

"Excuse, girls …

– A what ? asks one of the students. They have obviously never heard that word.

– Ben, a whore, if you want … She works for some bike guys …

– Was she there as a prostitute?

– Well yeah. "

He was released on condition that he follows a closed course of detoxification. After a few weeks, he who saw others felt that it was the worst therapy house in Quebec and decided to leave, but without notifying the court. He went to another therapy house. But the warrants run against him. He does not know what to do anymore.

Donald joins the very energetic Me Elfriede Duclervil, from Legal Aid, one of the 25 lawyers from across the city who take files from the Clinic. She will put some order in her causes … Francois is relieved.

Otherwise, the Clinic is Donald, the only employee, and about fifteen law students from several universities, who volunteer 3000 hours per year – plus summer jobs.


Lise had finally come out of the street, but not quite alcohol. She had her little apartment, but she kept drinking. A deep drunk night, she called 911. She threatened to kill a neighbor. The police came to arrest him. At the court, we agreed to release her, but on the condition that she make a closed cure. It means expulsion from her apartment, hard to find – she is not allowed to be near her neighbor, and anyway, in a closed cure, social assistance money is used to pay the cure … then bye-bye, housing.

We could not go to court fast enough to explain the situation to the judge, to get a change of conditions, as sometimes happens …

We found her dead.


A man had taken advantage of his wife's psychiatric detention to have him sign a renunciation of his house before his notary, for his benefit. She ended up on the street. Suicide attempts, depressions … The events went back nine years. A large office offered to take the cause pro bonobut abandoned it due to a conflict of interest.

A few months later, it was learned that the woman was getting a legacy from British Columbia. Go and settle that, when you come out of the street …

The people at the Clinic helped her recover the money. We did not see her in the shelters anymore.

There are defeats, but there are plenty of victories.


Gilles has unpaid tickets all over the city. He is not able to pay for them, so of course the amounts add up. In Montreal, you can pay your debts with compensatory work. He worked in the kitchen at a shelter.

"I put margarine in little cups. Sometimes jam, or mayonnaise … I did 62 hours. "

We credit around $ 10 per hour of compensatory work. But there, his tickets are scattered in municipalities that have their own rules. Some only accept work in their city. And since he is on the street, he has no email address or phone.

Donald calls the collector of fines in a first city. He must check Gilles' state of indigence before negotiating an agreement.

"What are your income?

– $ 586 in social assistance per month. I would like to go back to the shelter for …

– Do you have a vehicle?

– I had a 2002 Chevrolet, but I sold it for $ 200 to scrap. The muffler was lying on the floor.

– How are you moving?

– Walk…

– Where do you live ? Do you have furniture?

– I live in a dormitory and we're in there.

– What do you do with your money?

Donald takes the phone.

– Listen, madam, it's $ 586 a month, not a week!

– I understand, but I must be convinced that he has no seizable good.

Donald passes his cell to Gilles.

– What are your expenses?

– Ben, the money is for groceries … And I smoke.

– How many cigarettes?

– Two packs a day is $ 10 each. Indian cigarettes are $ 3, but it makes me cough.

Gilles is fed up with questions.

– Do you want the color of my bobbles, too? ! I do not have a cent, I spend my days on the edge of a cement wall, that's my life!

– I have no choice, sir … »

Donald calm down: she is here to help you!

Finally, the agreement is concluded. Gilles thanks Donald, who managed to clean his slate in three cities in just a few minutes.

When everything is settled, Gilles wants to get his license back. He can be a trucker, as before. He stopped drinking, it's been 19 years. He shows us the token that testifies his sobriety.

He goes to grill one in the alley. He takes out a pack of cigarettes … "Indian".

"The blue ones, they do not cough," he says with a smile.

Behind the Mission, it is the traffic of the Ville-Marie Expressway that composes background music.

Someone drew a heart in three colors on a gray concrete pillar.

In this day without light, it shines even more.

This is also Donald, and this clinic he invented and animates by working night and day.

A little light, in a long month of November.

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