The dreadful ice sculpture left from the horrendous fire at L’Isle-Verte, a tragedy that will have claimed 32 lives once the missing bodies are finally retrieved from the frozen ruins, is a graphic harbinger of a disquieting reality: the rapid greying of Quebec.
Schools close as more and more retirement homes are built. How long will the state be able to provide a safe and decent end of life to the elderly in long-term care facilities, in a province with a low fertility rate – and which is, for cultural reasons, reluctant to increase immigration?
There was a discernible nostalgia in the outpouring of emotions triggered by the fire that ravaged the Résidence du Havre. The victims were a reminder that not so long ago, Quebec families consisted of resilient, married-for-life couples who would give birth, especially in rural communities like L’Isle-Verte, to many children. People like Gisèle and Gérard Ouellet, for instance, who disappeared in the fire, presumably because both had problems walking and couldn’t escape fast enough. They were about to celebrate their 69th wedding anniversary. He was a farmer-fisherman. She had 14 children, all of whom survived except one.
The public reaction to the deadly blaze – the second large-scale tragedy to hit Quebec in less than a year, after the derailment in Lac-Mégantic last summer of a train loaded with explosive crude – was very different from the response that followed the Lac-Mégantic accident.
While residents and the media were quick to point fingers at the American company responsible for the derailment, this time there was no villain in the story – only good people and good feelings. There was no hint of anger at the government – whose fault it is, after all, if there were no sprinklers in the older wing of the Résidence du Havre. Fire-prevention measures likely would have saved all or most of the lives that were lost there. While Ontario requires all private retirement homes to be equipped with sprinklers, Quebec only requires them in facilities catering to a non-mobile clientele or to people suffering from dementia.
But Premier Pauline Marois was warmly welcomed when she showed up, along with a host of politicians of all stripes, at a service for the victims.
There was no resentment either against the Résidence’s owner. The home was, by all accounts, very well-managed, but still, the janitor was the only employee on duty at night for 52 frail people, many of whom were in their nineties. Yet, when the owner of the Résidence walked up to the altar to speak, he got a standing ovation and his business partner, who manages the home, was applauded as a wonderful caretaker.
The owners were practically offered condolences, because they, too, lost “family” in the fire. The residents were like family to them, many townspeople said.
The desire not to offend anyone even extended to the media. The son of a 96-year-old resident suspected of having inadvertently started the fire by smoking complained that spreading this rumour would make his personal loss even worse, since his father was among the dead. Afterward, the media stopped speculating about the possible cause of the fire.
This surprising equanimity stems from a character trait French Canadians are known for: their gentleness and their intense dislike of quarreling, especially in a time of grief. For a few days, it looked as if Quebec was transformed into a tight-knit village where people found solace in the warmth of an extended family.