MONTREAL — A Quebec coroner on Tuesday reluctantly suspended part of her inquest into pandemic-related deaths at nursing homes, pushing to September hearings into one of the province's hardest-hit facilities.
Coroner Gehane Kamel's inquest was supposed to begin Monday but she was immediately seized with a request to delay the hearings by the lawyer for the owners of Residence Herron in Dorval, Que. Kamel was scheduled to probe 47 deaths that had occurred at that facility.
Lawyer Nadine Touma said prosecutors hadn't decided whether to charge the owners criminally and told the coroner the inquest could prejudice her clients.
After considering her options, Kamel on Tuesday elected to put off the Herron portion of the inquiry until September. She surmised that if she refused the request, it would be appealed and could delay the entire inquest for years.
"I risk not being able to resume my work for years," Kamel said in brief remarks announcing her decision, noting the last time an inquest was faced with such a request, the legal fight resulted in a four-year delay. She also expressed concerns that resources that had been prepared for the inquest would have been diverted to deal with a legal fight.
Kamel's mandate is to investigate the deaths at Herron and at six other seniors residences and long-term care homes, which are known as CHSLDs in Quebec. In total, she is investigating 53 deaths at the seven facilities.
The vast majority of deaths attributed to COVID-19 in Quebec have occurred in long-term care homes and private seniors residences. Coroner's inquests are not intended to assign blame, but to make recommendations to avoid similar occurrences.
Due to the fact the hearings into Herron have been pushed to September, the inquest will be suspended until March 29, when it resumes in Joliette, Que., as planned, with hearings investigating the CHSLD des Moulins de Terrebonne.
Kamel said she was sincerely sorry to the families for the delay. The primary interest of the inquest, she said, is to provide answers to the families and relatives of victims who've "waited long enough." She said she was hopeful the delay will give prosecutors enough time to decide whether to charge Herron's owners criminally.
Patrick Martin-Menard, a Montreal lawyer representing four families of deceased former Herron residents, said Tuesday his clients "were very disappointed" with the delay. He said, however, that Kamel's decision was difficult under the circumstances.
"She made the decision which I think is most likely to bring about a rapid resumption of the investigation of Herron in the hope that the (Crown) has made its decision next September," Martin-Menard said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 16, 2021.
Stephanie Marin, The Canadian Press