MONTREAL — More than a week after a fatal fire tore through a building in Old Montreal, accounts from former tenants and victims of the blaze are raising questions about the safety of the heritage property.
Four bodies had been found as of Friday afternoon and three people were missing in the shell of the once-elegant greystone building.
Police and firefighters have said it’s too soon to say what caused the fire. But witnesses have raised questions about safety, including whether smoke detectors were working and whether there were proper emergency exits.
A rental tribunal decision shows that in 2012, the owner, Emile-Haim Benamor, blamed actions of a tenant for creating a risk of fire in the building. The comments are found in a Sept. 6, 2012, decision from Quebec’s Régie du logement, stemming from a dispute between Benamor and a tenant whose lease he was trying to end. According to the document, Benamor claimed the tenant was “manipulating electricity” and had “modified or added” electrical systems and overloaded the building’s circuits.
“The landlord insists that in the current state of things, the building is not profitable, he is unable to have access to the apartment … that there is a risk of fire and he says he is being monitored by insurance companies, especially since it’s a historic building,” the tribunal’s decision says.
The landlord also called a witness from the insurance company Lloyd’s, who testified that the unit presented safety concerns. In an affidavit included in the tribunal decision, Michel Frigon said the unit was not originally intended to be an apartment but rather a storage area. Frigon noted that access to the unit was required to perform maintenance of the building’s heating and electrical systems.
“The shower adjoining the electrical entrance to the dwelling presents a real danger of electrocution,” he added, saying a new insurer would likely have to be found if the problems weren’t fixed.
But in her written decision, administrative judge Jocelyne Gascon concluded there was little convincing evidence to suggest the tenant, Piotr Torbicki, was to blame for any electrical issues.
“The various electrical systems, although they appear to the court to be non-compliant, obsolete, the evidence offered did not establish that it was a recent addition,” Gascon wrote. She did not offer an opinion on Benamor’s comments about the risk of fire.
The building, known as the William-Watson-Ogilvie building, was built in 1890 and originally housed the offices of a flour company. It was gradually converted to residential use between the late 1960s and the 1980s, with the office of an architecture firm remaining on the ground floor. Municipal property records show Benamor, a lawyer, bought the building in 2009.
Since the fire, both the father of a missing woman and a former tenant have said at least one of the units had no windows or fire escape, while survivors of the fire have suggested the fire alarms never went off.
Louis-Philippe Lacroix said his 18-year-old daughter Charlie, who is presumed missing in the fire, called 911 twice within several minutes to say she was unable to get out of the unit she and a friend were staying in, which had no window and no fire escape.
A survivor of the fire, Alina Kuzmina, said that while the semi-basement unit she’d rented with her husband had fire alarms, she doesn’t remember hearing them go off. Kuzmina was able to escape the building by breaking a window and crawling out.
The owner this week responded to the claims through his lawyer, saying the alarm system was replaced in 2019 and regularly tested. Regarding the emergency exits, lawyer Alexandre Bergevin said the building’s layout is complex.
“It has always been deemed compliant in the past,” he said in a text message.
A former tenant spoke on condition that he not be identified, saying he fears reprisals from Benamor, who owns multiple buildings in the city. The former tenant said that in recent years long-term tenants have gradually left and been replaced by units rented on the short-term rental platform Airbnb. He also said some units had been subdivided, and at least one did not have windows.
Benamor’s lawyer, Alexandre Bergevin, said in an interview Friday that the short-term rentals in the building were the work of tenants and not his client. He said one person was renting seven units in the building and “illegally” listing them on Airbnb. He said that Benamor had told the person to stop the short-term rentals, and they had reached an agreement for him to leave the building by July 1.
“It’s a real scourge, it’s uncontrollable,” Bergevin said of the Airbnb rentals. “He had doubts on several tenants in several buildings, but it’s quite difficult to get the proof of all that.”
The lawyer acknowledged that one apartment in the building “didn’t have a window in the traditional sense of the term,” but it did have a skylight.
Asked whether the smoke detectors were working, he replied: “That’s an excellent question. We don’t know yet.” But he said there were detectors in all apartments, the central detector had been working the day before the fire and it would be surprising if all of them failed.
Bergevin said he was not aware of any specific electrical problems, including those raised in the 2012 rental tribunal decision, but noted that the building dates to the 19th century.
“It’s certain that it’s not the electricity we know today,” he said, adding that at certain points when issues arose, qualified electricians worked in the building.
Benamor, he said, has felt under attack since news broke that people had died in the fire.
“The public trial, while we have no idea of the causes of the fire, is causing him a lot of psychological distress,” he said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 25, 2023.
U.S President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau agreed to tackle a number of cross-border irritants, after a day of meetings on Parliament Hill, emphasising how important shared values are to shared prosperity and longstanding liberty.
“I can’t think of a challenge we haven’t met together,” Biden said during a joint press conference standing next to Trudeau. “Today as we stand… at an inflection point in history, our nations are once again called upon to lead, and together I believe we’re answering the call.”
In a joint statement the two leaders announced plans to further bolster Norad, expand the Safe Third Country Agreement to unofficial ports of entry to address irregular migration, launch a one-year energy transformation task force, and offer more support to Haiti.
Another major cross-border point of contention heading into Friday’s meetings were Biden’s “Buy-America” approach and Canada’s need to compete with his Inflation Reduction Act.
On this, the joint statement indicates that the United States and Canada will work together “toward an integrated North American approach that benefits U.S. and Canadian workers, suppliers, and products.”
Here are the highlights of what Canada and the U.S. have agreed to.
“Catalzye” clean energy and strengthen the critical mineral sector: This commitment includes $250 million going towards Canada’s semiconductor industry and US$50M in related Defence Production Act funding, bolstering and diversifying the North American supply chains, and IBM expanding a facility in Quebec. The joint statement also notes the launch of a new energy task force that will be chaired by the U.S. Special Presidential Coordinator for Global Infrastructure Amos Hochstein and Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland with a mandate to “accelerate cooperation on critical clean energy opportunities… and to avoid and reduce disruptions to our integrated and mutually supportive supply chains.”
“Manage” migration by revising the Safe Third Country Agreement: This move seeks to address the influx of irregular migration stemming from a loophole in the 20-year-old cross-border asylum pact. In addition to almost immediately closing all irregular points of entry like Roxham Road by permitting border officers to return irregular crossers to the closest port of entry, Canada will welcome an additional 15,000 migrants from the Western Hemisphere over the course of the year and both sides vow to focus on promoting legal pathways.
“Protecting” shared waters: This includes Canada spending $420 million to protect and restore the Great Lakes over the next decade, working together on a modernized treaty regime related to the Columbia River Basin, reach by this summer an agreement around reducing water pollution in the Elk-Kootenay watershed, in partnership with tribal nations and Indigenous people.
“Bolstering” global alliances and offering more to Haiti, Ukraine: This portion of the agreement will see Canada sent $100 million in additional equipment and support for the Haitian National Police to bolster Haitian-led solutions to the crisis and support peace and security.” Both countries reaffirmed their unwavering support for Ukraine and intent to impose economic costs on Russia. They both acknowledged a desire to condemn China, while finding ways to be competitive against its economy and collaborative on issues like climate change.
“Invest” in collective defence and security: When it comes to security issues, Canada is committing to spend an additional $7.3 billion in infrastructure for the arrival of F-35 fighter jets, from the $38.6-billion Norad modernization plan and another $6.96 billion on surveillance system modernization in the North. Stitched into this, the two countries also note plans to disrupt the illicit production and distribution of synthetic opioids like fentanyl and build a global coalition against these drugs.
“In this serious time, with all the challenges we face, we’re doubling down on our partnership, and our friendship,” Trudeau said during the joint press conference. “We’ll also continue to work together as partners to keep our people safe. Keeping people safe also includes keeping asylum seekers safe, keeping our borders secure, and keeping our immigration system strong.”
The visit, Biden’s first to Canada since taking office, was largely an effort to reaffirm the strength of the Canada-U.S. relationship after rocky years under the previous Trump administration, and to speak in-person about ways the two world leaders can work together to tackle the big challenges both countries and the world are facing.
“Our enduring partnership is based on a mutual commitment to shared security, shared prosperity, and shared democratic values,” reads part of a joint statement issued by Biden and Trudeau on Friday afternoon. “As the closest of friends and allies, we remain committed to making life better for people on both sides of our shared border and to building a more free, equitable, secure, and prosperous world.”
‘AN AGE OF POSSIBILITIES’: BIDEN’S SPEECH
The Biden-Trudeau press conference came on the heels of the main event of Biden’s visit: his address to Parliament.
Becoming the ninth U.S. president to deliver a speech to Parliament, POTUS delivered a warm and affable speech in the glass-ceiling temporary House of Commons chamber, which he said Canada had done “a hell of a job” on. “Really beautiful.”
“Bonjour Canada,” was how he started. Then, for nearly 40 minutes, the U.S. president spoke to an audience of hundreds of MPs, senators, dignitaries, diplomats, Indigenous leaders, former prime ministers and governors general, and business stakeholders.
There were also everyday Canadians whose stories spoke to some of the core themes of the visit, from a Ukrainian woman to a steel worker.
The most notable guests that all in the chamber were clearly moved to see were Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who captured the attention of citizens on both sides of the border and sparked a massive diplomatic effort, after they were imprisoned in China from 2018 to 2021. They received numerous standing ovations and rounds of applause during various pre-Biden welcoming speeches, and during the main address.
U.S. President Joe Biden, accompanied by first lady Jill Biden, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife Sophie Gregoire Trudeau, waves as he arrives to speak at the Canadian Parliament, Friday, March 24, 2023, in Ottawa. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, Pool)
Inviting them to take part was a clear indication of how pressing China is on the minds of both delegations. That played out in Biden’s remarks, seeing him at one moment misspeak by saying he applauded China, but meant to say Canada.
“Excuse me… you can tell what I’m thinking about China, I won’t get into that yet,” he said, before saying with sincerity how “very glad” he was to see the two Michaels home and well.
Broadly Biden used the speech to drive home how important the Canada-U.S. partnership is, how closely tied the two countries are, and how much potential there is for both nations if that collaboration continues into the future.
“Americans and Canadians are two people, two countries, in my view, sharing one heart. It’s a personal connection. No two nations on Earth are bound by such close ties: friendship, family, commerce and culture. Our labour unions cross borders, so do our sports leagues,” Biden said before quipping about how he likes Canadian hockey teams with the exception of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
In addition to making some early news about the policy agreements reached on Friday, Biden spoke about the “scourge” of the opioid epidemic, his support for unions, how he took after Trudeau in appointing a gender-balanced cabinet, and how the two countries worked well together to get through the COVID-19 pandemic.
“After two years of COVID, people began to even wonder, ‘can we still do big things?’ Big things. We sure in hell can,” Biden said. “I believe with every fibre of my being that confidence can make most audacious dreams reality.”
Clean energy and growing the green economy was another enduring theme through both Biden’s speech and Trudeau’s introductory remarks, and on a few occasions when topics like semiconductors were spoken to, Freeland could be seen fist-bumping Industry Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne.
“It has never been more clear that everything is interwoven. Economic policy is climate policy is security policy,” Trudeau said, restating this sentiment a few times in his address.
Referring to Canada as a reliable ally and steady friend, Biden got one of a few standing ovations when he said: “You will always be able to count of the United States of America.”
“Our destinies are intertwined and are inseparable … because it’s a choice we’ve made,” Biden said.
Both first lady Jill Biden and Sophie Gregoire Trudeau attended the speech, after spending the morning off the Hill meeting with young curlers to talk about mental health in sport and visiting the National Gallery of Canada for a luncheon and to see an exhibit focused on Canadian women artists.
BIDEN’S BIG DAY ON THE HILL
The U.S. president arrived on Parliament Hill Friday morning to a lot of fanfare and with “a lot to talk about,” during his first official visit to Canada since taking office.
Rolling up onto Parliament Hill in “The Beast” nearly an hour behind schedule, Biden was met by a backdrop of American flags lining the street and extremely tight security.
The U.S. President was welcomed in West Block by House and Senate representatives, and opposition party leaders. Among those who greeted him were Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre, who Biden later had a pull-aside meeting with.
According to Poilievre, the pair discussed defence, Norad, exemptions for Canada in Buy American, and vaccine mandates.
“President Biden was very receptive. He wants to be a good friend and neighbor to Canada. And that’s why I was so encouraged,” he said.
Green Party leader Elizabeth May also made a bit of a moment for herself, handing Biden a “Peace by Chocolate” bar from a Syrian refugee-turned Nova Scotia chocolatier.
After the handshakes, Biden signed the House and Senate guest books, and then moved as swiftly as his sizeable entourage could, one floor up for a bilateral meeting with Trudeau inside his office.
Offering brief remarks for the gathered media pool before the doors were closed for their private, roughly-30 minute chat, Biden said it was great to be in Canada.
He said that he always tells other world leaders how lucky America is to have Canada to the north at a time with so many geopolitical challenges, and while the two nations disagree occasionally, there is no difference when it comes to the democratic values they share.
“What a real pleasure it is to welcome President Biden to Ottawa, back to Ottawa. It’s so great to see you Joe,” Trudeau said.
This tete-a-tete was followed by an expanded meeting with cabinet ministers and members of Biden’s delegation.
While there was extensive pre-trip policy preparation between officials on both sides, this meeting was where the visit’s substantial policy conversations would have transpired, and the details of the aforementioned tangible commitments that came out of the visit would have been finalized.
In attendance for these high-level talks from the Canadian government were top-level PMO staffers, Trudeau’s national security adviser Jody Thomas, as well as several cabinet ministers. Sitting on either side of the prime minister were Freeland, and Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly.
Among the American officials in the meeting were Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs Jake Sullivan, Homeland Security Adviser Liz Sherwood-Randall, and Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre.
GALA DINNER CAPS OFF WHIRLWIND VISIT
Once the substantive portion of the day was behind them, Biden, the first lady and the American delegation got ready for a gala dinner hosted by Trudeau and his wife, alongside 350 guests at the Canadian Aviation and Space Museum.
Kicking off the evening, the prime minister gave a toast in which he noted the museum was a fitting location as in the coming years, a Canadian will be heading towards the moon as part of the Artemis II mission. He referenced the Canadian talent in the room, and the nation’s diversity in languages and cuisines, before raising his glass.
“To shared history and shared hope, to shared prosperity, and to the shared peace and security that binds Canada and the United States together as allies as neighbors, and most importantly, as true friends,” Trudeau said.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau takes his seat as President Joe Biden gets up to speak during a gala dinner at the Canadian Aviation and Space Museum, Friday, March 24, 2023, in Ottawa, Canada. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Many in Ottawa were waiting to see whether Biden would make any impromptu visits that would put him in a public setting with Canadians, but that did not transpire.
Still, the capital was on high alert all day with a heightened police and first responder presence around the parliamentary precinct, military aircraft in the skies, and rolling road closures each time POTUS’ Secret Service motorcade was on the move, something some locals gathered to see.
Biden and the first lady’s whirlwind overnight visit began on Thursday evening with a warm welcome from Canadian cabinet ministers and foreign affairs officials, followed by a brief meeting with Gov. Gen. Mary Simon and her husband Whit Fraser. The Bidens then had an intimate meeting with Trudeau and Gregoire Trudeau and their three children at their Rideau Cottage home, where a special locally-made “Friend-chip Goals” ice cream was scooped.
Biden’s scheduled departure time from the Ottawa Airport was 9:25 p.m. on Friday night.