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Accueil Bonneau celebrates 20 years after rebuilding

On June 9, 1998, an explosion caused by a gas leak tore through the building that houses Accueil Bonneau, an organization that provides help for people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.

Three people were killed and more than 20 injured.

What followed was an outpouring of support from the private sector, the city of Montreal and the provincial government. Within four months, the Accueil Bonneau’s building had been rebuilt.

Sister Nicole Fournier, who was the director of the Accueil Bonneau at the time, lived in the building and was left with just the clothes on her back.

The morning after the explosion, there wasn’t a lot of time to thing about what had just happened, she said, it wasn’t until later that she realized serious of the incident.

De la Commune St. is littered with rubble after an explosion at Accueil Bonneau on June 9, 1998. MARCOS TOWNSEND / Montreal Gazette files

The focus, instead, was on rebuilding. She she said she knew the centre had to be rebuilt because of the immediate support that she recieved from the community and from political leaders, like then-premier Lucien Bouchard, who visited the scene the day after the explosion.

Bouchard said he still has a vivid memory of that day.

“There was something especially dramatic, because this is the home of desperate people who have already been hit so hard by their destiny, terrible things have hit them in their lives and then they’re hit in their home,” he said. “I felt it was terrible, terrible for those people.”

Injured are brought to safety after an explosion at Accueil Bonneau on June 9, 1998. BERNHARD CRISTOFFERSEN / Montreal Gazette files

He said one of the big things the government did at the time was get out the way — expediting permits and approvals, so that construction could start again in weeks, rather than years.

The Accueil Bonneau is the principle day-time resource for homeless people in Montreal, said Aubin Boudreau, the centre’s current executive director.

Around 700 people receive services at Accueil Bonneau every day, he said, including lunch, clothing and a chance to wash themselves.

The organization also provides transitional housing for 250 people, as well as mental and physical health services. In particular, it offers chiropractors, who volunteer their time. Boudreau said many people who are homeless suffer from back problems, the result of carrying all their possessions in a backpack. It also provides podiatric services, as wearing inadequate footwear and being outside much of the time can lead to foot problems that can become more serious.

Accueil Bonneau was founded in 1877 by the Grey Nuns.

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