Quebec Premier Francois Legault promised more investments for mental health on Monday, after a fatal sword attack in the provincial capital on Halloween night sparked a wider conversation on the need for better services.
Legault said the stabbings that left two dead and five injured raise “all kinds of questions” about mental illness, adding that his junior health minister would make an announcement on the subject later in the day.
The premier said that while services need to improve, it’s impossible to avoid all such tragedies. “We have to be realistic,” he told a Montreal news conference.
“Even if we had all the services, even if we took charge of all the Quebecers who have mental health problems, we can never avoid all the violent tragedies,” Legault said, adding that only a small minority of people with mental illnesses become violent.
Saturday’s attack in Quebec City’s historic neighbourhood was allegedly carried out by a man wearing medieval garb who travelled there from Montreal’s north shore. A 24-year-old suspect has been charged with two counts of first-degree murder and five of attempted murder.
The attack prompted Quebec City Mayor Regis Labeaume to call for a societal debate on mental health, which he described as the biggest security issue facing Canada’s major cities in the coming years.
“It’s becoming more and more difficult to manage in our cities,” Labeaume said Sunday. “It’s become more difficult for our police officers who are almost transformed, who are becoming social workers, and that’s not their job.”
Legault said his government is considering mixed patrols composed of officers and social workers. “We see more and more these two services have to work together,” he said.
Quebec City police chief Robert Pigeon said Sunday said the suspect, who hails from a city north of Montreal, allegedly swung a katana-like sword at randomly chosen victims “with the clear intention of taking as many victims as possible.”
Pigeon said the suspect, Carl Girouard, had no known criminal record, but shared plans to commit this type of act in an unspecified “medical context” about five years ago.
Mathieu Dufour, a forensic psychiatrist at the Philippe-Pinel psychiatric hospital in Montreal, says that while he has no specific knowledge of the suspect, Pigeon’s statement as well as other elements of the case point to possible mental health issues.
“The costume he was wearing, the type of weapon he had, the way he was found in hypothermia raised the question of whether he suffered from a mental disorder or not,” Dufour said, noting that sometimes people in an “acute psychiatric state” do not dress for the weather.
Dufour stressed that most people with mental illnesses are not violent, and are more likely to be the victim of a crime than to commit one.
But he agreed the time is right to have a “bigger debate” on funding for mental health services, which he said are increasingly needed as more Canadians struggle with anxiety and depression linked to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We know the funding for mental health is under-resourced, is suboptimal compared to physical health in the health-care system,” he said in a phone interview.
Dufour said early intervention is crucial for those who do have the potential to become violent, and that successful treatment ideally involves a team of supports including family and friends, family doctors, and mental health specialists.
Meanwhile, the province’s public security minister, Genevieve Guilbault, said extra mental health resources have been made available for those affected by the tragedy.
Residents of Old Quebec had already begun the grieving process Sunday, gathering for impromptu vigils for the victims, 61-year-old Suzanne Clermont and 56-year-old Francois Duchesne. Duchesne’s employer, the Musee national des beaux-arts du Quebec, said it would host a vigil on Tuesday in honour of a man they described as “unwaveringly positive” and cheerful.
“As colleagues of Francois, we remember his joie de vivre, his insight, his creativity, his optimism and his dedication,” the museum wrote on Facebook. “The exceptional human he was has marked us forever.”
A publication ban protects the identities of those who were wounded, but officials have said all five are expected to survive.
Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press
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