Quebec invests $100 million in mental health care following fatal sword attack

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MONTREAL — The Quebec government announced $100 million in funding for mental health services Monday following a fatal sword attack in Quebec City, even as the province's premier and junior health minister warned that it's impossible to fully eliminate the risk of such violent tragedies.

Junior health minister Lionel Carmant called the investment "unprecedented" and said the announcement was moved ahead in response to the Halloween night attack that killed two people and injured five. Police say a sword-wielding suspect who had previously expressed violent desires wore a medieval costume as he attacked victims seemingly chosen at random.

Carmant said the money will be spent to improve access to therapy and to support institutions, programs and community organizations, with the aim of significantly cutting or eliminating the province's 16,000-person wait list to access mental health services by 2022.

He also announced the creation of a squad of 380 people who will go into the field to reach out to vulnerable individuals, noting that half of people who suffer from mental illness do not seek treatment.

But Carmant said it's impossible to say whether any one measure could have prevented Saturday night's violence. "We want to improve our mental health services, we need to improve them, but zero risk doesn't exist," he said.

Earlier Monday, Premier Francois Legault said the Halloween stabbings raised "all kinds of questions" about mental illness, some of which can never be resolved.

"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 told a Montreal news conference, adding that only a small minority of people with mental illnesses become violent.

A 24-year-old man who police say travelled to the provincial capital from Montreal's north shore has been charged with two counts of first-degree murder and five of attempted murder.

The attack in Quebec City's historic neighbourhood prompted 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.

Legault said he agreed with Labeaume's statement that police officers are often being asked to function as social workers, and he said his government is considering mixed patrols composed of officers and social service workers. "We see more and more, these two services have to work together," he said.

Quebec City police chief Robert Pigeon said Sunday the attacker 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 he said that in an unspecified "medical context" about five years ago, he shared plans to commit this type of act.

Mathieu Dufour, a forensic psychiatrist at the Philippe-Pinel psychiatric hospital in Montreal, says that while he has no specific knowledge of the case, that statement as well as other elements 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 experiencing a psychiatric episode 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 for 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 successful treatment ideally involves a team of supports including family and friends, family doctors and mental health specialists.

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. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 2, 2020.

Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press