There's a war raging in Montreal: not a war on drugs; not a war on cars; not a war on pollution; but it’s a war, and the soldiers are tiny and vicious and relentless.
In the midst of what’s arguably one of the worst housing crises in Montreal in recent memory, a team of seniors, artists and activists are battling the Montreal scourge of cimex lectularius, the lowly and much despised bedbug.
With only a few months to go before next November's election, artist and long-time support worker Hana Benveniste and her group of Chevaliers de l’espoir seniors at a Hochelaga-Maisonneuve low-income housing project want to bring attention to their plight from decision-makers at the Office Municipale d’habitation de Montréal (OMHM) and Montreal city hall.
“As an artist I've had the great fortune to work for the last ten months with really interesting and feisty seniors who are fed up,” she says, working with non-profit Engrenage Noir and social work master’s student Marilou Bissonnette to create a project and address the issue of bedbugs through art and activism.
Montreal has had a bedbug problem for a decade and if you’ve ever been unfortunate enough to live the ordeal, you know it's no picnic. Actually, it is a picnic, even a buffet for the pests – with some of Montreal’s most vulnerable on the menu.
“The OMHM has spent millions to try and tackle this problem but they're just repeating the same process over and over” Benveniste told The Suburban. “Fumigate, wait a few months and fumigate again. The cost is enormous and not only in dollars to the city but to the well-being of people who live there. These are older people, vulnerable, many have physical disabilities, mental health issues, some have addiction issues and it plays with their mind.”
Benveniste speaks of seniors sleeping in bathtubs or on their balconies to avoid being bitten, waking up with bites and remaining in a hypervigilant state, feeling an incredible mental toil. “It's quite traumatizing,” she says. “It causes fights between neighbors and people become more isolated, and CLSC home services are cancelled because workers don't want to risk being contaminated… It's a cascading problem: people are facing it over and over again while being promised that things are going to get better.”
It’s often said when things are bad you can laugh or cry. Well they've done a lot of crying and now they are trying to laugh, but it’s no joke: The group designed and printed hundreds of cheeky postcards to distribute to residents and other Montrealers to write to OMHM officials, Mayor Valérie Plante and Mercier-Hochelaga-Maisonneuve Mayor Pierre Lessard-Blais demanding action, “and inciting them to meet with us in person to discuss and analyze the situation and maybe find a new way to approach this.”
And yes, says Benveniste, there are other ways, using more reputable firms rather than just handing out contracts to lowest bidders, and offering accessible spaces for seniors to go to when they must leave for fumigation. “You have people in walkers. Where do they go in winter when they have to leave? Can you imagine what it's been like during the pandemic?”
Regular inspections should be the rule, not just once a year, “and exterminators should be experienced and understand not just bedbugs in residential situations but also how to work in large buildings and with people who may be facing multiple barriers.”
“We want to raise awareness. You’re spending millions saying you're doing everything you can but you're not living there. It's maddening.”
Montreal’s by-law concerning the sanitation, maintenance and safety of dwelling units includes:
Eliminating the presence of bedbugs as well as the conditions contributing to their proliferation, and exterminating bedbugs by a qualified exterminator in accordance with the required standards.
View the city’s web page dedicated to bedbug information: https://ville.montreal.qc.ca/bedbugs/
View a map of bedbug exterminations on the island on the Montreal data website: https://montrealdata.org/bed-bugs-montreal