Cornwall mayor releases statement on encampment death

Cornwall Mayor Justin Towndale. (Newswatch Group/Bill Kingston, File)

Mayor Justin Towndale released the following statement on Monday, Nov. 6, 2023 following the weekend death at a homeless encampment at Pointe Maligne:

I’m not sure where to begin. This is difficult to attempt to write. I am saddened by the death of Diane Hebert. At this time, I want to offer my sincere condolences to her family and friends. This is a tragedy that should not have happened, and it was one that I had hoped to avoid.

For the last number of months, the City has been working with the United Way of SD&G on a winter plan for those who are identified as homeless. This sort of project is not an overnight fix and takes time to get off the ground. We had to identify a location, enter into negotiations with the owners, wait for repairs to be made, buy furniture, coordinate staffing and resources, and develop a plan for operation and to move people in.

We did not communicate our current plans well enough, and this has caused a lot of confusion. We did not comment on the winter plan because frankly, we couldn’t. Most of what is being worked on has to remain private until it is ready. I had indicated a few times that we were working on something, but I could not elaborate as we don’t have an agreement in place yet. I also wasn’t going to announce something that wasn’t confirmed and in place yet. To me, I’d rather focus on what we’re doing and getting it done, rather than focusing on talking about it.

Our original timeline was the end of October. We fell behind on this as our first plan with the first location did network out. On top of this, planning, repairs, and negotiations take time. The unfortunate reality is that we are likely days away from the agreement with the property owners being signed.

I find myself wishing that we could have moved faster on this. Our Human Services staff, supported by other departments, have been making this project a priority. They have also been visiting the encampments at least twice weekly. I am aware that our Human Services staff had been in contact with Ms. Hebert on a number of occasions and had offered her housing options, which she declined.

You have every right to be angry and upset. I am too. The loss of a human being is not lost on me, and Ms. Hebert was a mother, a daughter, and a person. She deserved better. We failed her. I failed her. As the Mayor, I take full responsibility for this tragic incident as it happened on my watch. Nothing I can say or do will bring Ms. Hebert back. All I can do is pledge to do better. And hope that we can avoid a similar tragedy in the future.

In short, will we have a place for people to stay over the winter? Yes. Will there be a place for people to live at the former Vincent Massey School? Yes. At the November 14th meeting of Council, a full update is to be presented with information on both the winter project, the future of the Vincent Massey school, and what actions we have taken in the background. I encourage you all to watch or attend this meeting.

Justin Towndale
City of Cornwall