'We are all Amqui,' Legault tells Quebec town reeling after pedestrian deaths

AMQUI, Que. — Quebec Premier François Legault promised to boost mental health services in the province as he visited the town where two people were killed Monday and nine injured when a pickup truck crashed into pedestrians.

Joined by opposition leaders and other politicians Thursday, Legault met with residents of Amqui, the small community in eastern Quebec. Afterwards, he said the tragedy had prompted soul-searching on what more can be done to prevent a repeat.

"We feel a little guilty, me first of all," he told reporters after the visit. He said the province "has to do more" for mental health.

"It’s not always easy because people have to accept to go get help," he added. "Sometimes we have to, maybe, force them to go seek help."

On Monday, a man drove a truck down one of Amqui's main streets, allegedly hitting several groups of pedestrians in what police have described as an intentional act. Gérald Charest, 65, and Jean Lafrenière, 73, died in the crash.

Legault arrived shortly after 11 a.m. and walked down the street where the men were killed, shaking hands and comforting citizens. He also added a bouquet of white flowers to a memorial to the victims.

Several in the crowd told the premier they knew someone who was hurt or killed in the crash, and some said it was their first time venturing out to the streets since the tragedy.

Legault spoke to Gérald Charest's brother, Sylvain. He struggled to describe his pain but urged the premier to do more to ensure people get mental health treatment.

Another man told Legault that he was almost hit by the speeding pickup truck on Monday. His partner alerted him just in time, the man said, meaning the truck missed him by a foot.

"You owe her big time," the premier told the man.

"I owe her my whole life," the man replied. "She saved me."

Over and over, Legault encouraged people to "stay strong," to support the survivors and to seek help if they need it.

"Today, all of Quebec is Amqui," he told the news conference.

Legault told reporters that violent incidents allegedly linked to poor mental health are rising all over the world, and he said more resources are needed, including ensuring mental health services are offered locally in small towns.

He said one of the biggest obstacles to improving services is recruitment, because many positions go unfilled and personnel can't be trained quickly.

He said mental health professionals would remain in Amqui over the next days and weeks to ensure citizens who need help won't have to drive to the bigger city of Rimouski, about an hour away.

Steeve Gagnon, 38, is facing two counts of dangerous driving causing death, and prosecutors have said more charges will follow.

The prosecutor in the case told reporters on Tuesday that no mental health assessment had been requested for Gagnon. Simon Labelle said the accused has a "presumption of aptitude" and said that, at that early stage, he had no reason to believe Gagnon was not mentally fit to stand trial.

While Legault told people to support each other in their mourning, he also encouraged them to move forward, reclaim the downtown and gradually return to normal life.

"Madness can't triumph over hope," he said. "We have to be able to rediscover the joy of living."

Police have said those injured in the crash range in age from less than a year old to 77. Two people were still in critical condition as of Thursday morning.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 16, 2023.

Patrice Bergeron, The Canadian Press