Richard Beaulne and his mother, Lucille Boucher, listen to the chatter between kitchen staff and residents as Beaulne wheels the 85-year-old back to her room at the Résidence Le Saint-Joseph d'Ahuntsic.
"It's a good place," says Boucher, who's lived at the seniors' home on Papineau Avenue for the past nine years.
Beaulne said his mother will miss those familiar voices. All 45 residents of Le Saint-Joseph, along with 33 people living a few doors away at another private seniors' residence, Les Jardins d'Élysée, have less than a year to find somewhere else to live.
Both buildings are rented from the English Montreal School Board (EMSB), which gave the owners notice in February it is terminating the leases on the properties next June.
"It's a family they've just destroyed," said Beaulne of the EMSB's decision to take back the buildings.
Neither of the residences has automatic sprinkler systems, which by law must be installed in all seniors' homes by December 2020.
The EMSB administration recommended that the board terminate the leases rather than install the sprinklers.
'Trauma' for residents, families and staff
"I offered to pay for the work. They refused," said Isabelle Lukawecki, who has been operating Les Jardins d"Elysee for eight years.
Jean Labelle, who has run Le Saint-Joseph d'Ahuntsic for nearly two decades, did the same.
"We offered to purchase the buildings. They refused that, too," said Labelle.
"I don't want to kick anyone out the door," said Lukawecki. "This is a trauma — for the residents, the employees, the families and for me."
New vocation for buildings, says EMSB
The homes are adjacent to St. Pius X Centre, an adult and vocational training centre that's been the focal point of some controversy in recent months, after the EMSB voted to move the Galileo Adult Education Centre to St. Pius to make room for francophone students in the overcrowded Pointe-de-l'Île school board.
The EMSB says it needs the space in the two long-rented buildings. Once they're vacated, the buildings may be used for labs, exam-marking centres, meeting rooms and administrative offices, the board says.
EMSB Chair Angela Mancini says she understands why the residents and their families are worried.
"Because they're elderly people that were in those homes, we wanted to make sure they had enough leeway time," said Mancini.
She said that's why the board gave Lukawecki and Labelle more than 16 months' notice, far more than the one-year notice the lease requires — to provide the residents a smooth transition to new homes.
Mancini says the main reason the board decided to end the leases was because of the sprinkler requirements, but she said the fact that the CAQ government is now eyeing the board's real estate makes reclaiming the buildings even more pressing.
"We're at a different time in our existence — the fact that the minister is looking to take maybe some of our buildings, " said Mancini.
Finding new homes could take months
The operators of both seniors' residences have already informed the regional health authority, le CIUSSS du Nord-de-l'Île-de-Montréal, that the homes will be shutting down.
The health authority is in the process of assessing the seniors' needs to help them find new homes, a process that could take as long as six months. Some residents with more acute needs may have to go to a provincially operated residence at least temporarily, until a permanent home can be found, said Lukawecki.
She worries the moves will take a toll.
"An elderly person living here is attached to the surroundings and neighbourhood," said Lukawecki.
Lukawecki and Labelle worry it will be hard for residents on a limited income to find the kind of affordable housing their homes provide. The two owners are shaken and exhausted by the whole ordeal.
"I put my money and heart into this, " said Lukawecki. "I spent my life around the elderly."
"It's inhumane," said Labelle.
He has gone out of his way to find Boucher a new place to live that will be close to her son, making it easier for him to visit.
"He thought of me," said Boucher, who considers Labelle to be like family — someone she will deeply miss when she moves.