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‘When someone knocks on the door, we let them in,’ Raphaël André’s mother tells Quebec coroner

June 5, 2024

Public inquiry into man’s death during pandemic is in its 3rd week

Three people accompany a woman in a wheelchair.
Suzanne Chemaganish, in the wheelchair, testified Wednesday at the public inquiry into her son Raphaël André’s death, where she called for better support for homeless people. (Marie-Laure Josselin/Radio-Canada)

CBC Indigenous: Suzanne Chemaganish struggled to comprehend how her son, Raphaël André, who had faced the winter out in the woods with his parents could succumb to the cold in the “big city” of Montreal. 

That’s what she told Quebec Coroner Stéphanie Gamache, in Naskapi with the help of a translator, Wednesday, in the third week of the public inquiry into André’s death.

The 51-year-old from the Matimekush-Lac John community in northern Quebec was found dead on the morning of Jan. 17, 2021, in a portable chemical toilet after he was denied entry into two different homeless shelters, in part due to COVID-19 restrictions at the time.

The cause of death was hypothermia, according to a pathologist who testified in May. 

“It’s cold in my community. When someone knocks on the door, we let them in and welcome them so they don’t stay out in the cold,” said Chemaganish, who referred to André by the name Napa Raphaël, as he was known to those in his home community.

a man takes a selfie
The coroner’s inquest learned in May that Raphaël André was denied entry to two different homeless shelters the evening leading up to his death in January 2021. (Submitted by John Tessier)

Since her son’s death, she’s spent a lot of time thinking about the children and women in her community and of ways to prevent them from falling into vulnerable situations, she told the coroner tearfully.

There should be more services for people experiencing homelessness and more attention given to their comfort, she said after talking about her visit to a shelter frequented by André where she saw folding beds with no sheets. 

“It’s not just about eating and sleeping,” added André’s brother, Ghislain, who accompanied Chemaganish at the inquiry.  “We need to help people [get out of homelessness].”

Gamache said the inquiry has given her a lot to reflect on so far and that she hopes it could help “us progress as a society.”

Chemaganish also spoke about the warming tent that was erected in Cabot Square later in the winter of 2021 in André’s memory, which Chemaganish said made her happy. 

The tent has recorded 128,221 visits from people getting away from the cold, according to Gamache. 

“It shows just how much there is a need but also just how much Raphaël has had an impact on people,” she said.

There were 4,690 people experiencing homelessness in Montreal in 2022, according to the latest data commissioned by the Ministry of Health and Social Services.

“Montreal is big. How is it that we can’t find enough shelters,” said Chemaganish.

She finished her testimony by thanking the coroner for inviting her and giving her the opportunity to share.

She thought she was alone, she said.

The inquiry is taking place at the Longueuil, Que., courthouse, and is scheduled to last until June 14. It will hear from public health authorities, professors and people who work with the homeless, among others. 


Cassandra Yanez-Leyton, Journalist

Cassandra Yanez-Leyton is a journalist for CBC News based in Montreal. You can email her story ideas at

With files from Steve Rukavina