Even if we know that we should not trust appearances, it is a reflex that is quite difficult to silence. I experienced it during my meeting with Sister Marie-Paule Lebel. I couldn’t help but be constantly amazed by the abysmal contrast between the gentleness she exuded and the strength she demonstrated, whether in court, in the face of a voracious property owner or in the midst of genocide. in Rwanda.

Her pastel blue gaze is full of tenderness. Her soothing voice makes her seem very shy. However, Marie-Paule Lebel is not the type to let herself be walked on. Confrontation never scared him, neither did machetes.

Unshakeable, at 84 years old she continues to lead battles and defend her principles. She does not hesitate, moreover, to criticize the government which she finds “insensitive” in the face of the housing crisis which “deteriorates the social fabric”.

“Does everyone have to be in the streets for the CAQ to wake up? “, she asks herself.

The theme touches her personally, since the tireless octogenarian is one of the tenants of the Mont-Carmel seniors’ residence, in Montreal, who fought to avoid eviction after a change of ownership. She did not hesitate for two seconds to take on this fight. “It’s a question of justice. The owner had agreed that it would remain an RPA on a paper signed before a notary. And then on January 31, we received an eviction notice. We said to ourselves: “That’s not going well!” »

This highly publicized affair led the Helping Sister to meet, in her apartment, the Minister of Housing France-Élaine Duranceau, the Minister of Seniors Sonia Bélanger and Manon Massé of Québec Solidaire. This shows how the determination of the group made it possible to bring the debate on the fate of seniors in particular and tenants in general into the public space. With another activist, Marie-Paule Lebel was even invited to Tout le monde en parle, in spring 2023. All this, without the help of expensive public relations experts.

In the 1970s, Marie-Paule Lebel was in the opposite position. A project by his religious community had aroused the ire of the neighborhood, who turned to the courts to block it.

The nuns wanted to welcome, within their walls, men who were released from prison to help them reintegrate into society. Marie-Paule Lebel was chosen to defend the project before the City and the judge, thanks to her qualities as a unifier, assumes the former leader of a group of guides.

After six or seven years, the Helping Sisters won across the board.

Trained as a nurse, Marie-Paule Lebel then worked in a medical clinic in Pointe-Saint-Charles. The experience was short-lived. Her keen interest in the international world brought her to Rwanda where she quickly learned the language, Kinyarwanda. In 1984, she abandoned her medical equipment to become the director of a “social action school” training adolescent girls, both in sociology and agriculture. Finding funds and food poses daily challenges. Ethnic tensions between Hutus and Tutsis prove difficult to manage. “I felt a little innocent for having accepted…”

But the worst is coming. Ten years later, Marie-Paule Lebel found herself in the middle of a genocide, surrounded by students and teachers from both camps. “Luckily it broke out over the Easter holidays. The students were not there…” She measures the extent of the drama that is being played out by going to look, with a colleague, for a car parked near a church where 3,000 people are crowded together, their house having been burned, in many places. cases.

Sister Lebel then decides to go to Burundi, where she helps Tutsis who want to save their skin to leave Rwanda. Thanks to her car and her white skin, she manages to obtain passports, rights of passage, plane tickets.

In her pockets, she carries medicine and batteries for flashlights that she plans to give to those who would like to block her path. “But they were asking us for medals and rosaries, imagine… It’s incredible. They had rosaries in their necks, then machetes in their hands. It’s crazy, huh? We never put that in our pockets. They had lost all sense of humanity. »

Where was your god at that time? I dared to ask him. “In all the people who worked together to save people. »

More than a year after the start of the genocide, she managed to reopen her school and even double the number of students. But the end of his years in Rwanda is approaching. One day, she is informed that she will be the next person murdered. “I knew too much. “Most of us would have fled quickly. Not her.

“It didn’t shake me too much at the time. But at some point, I saw signs. For example, in the military newspaper, they ridiculed me, they compared me to a Hutu bishop. At this point you say “well, that’s enough”. » Five months later, she returned to Quebec and returned to her old love, working as a nurse, in a CHSLD in Montreal.

When she sees, today, the mobility that the government requires of nurses, Marie-Paule Lebel becomes more animated than at any other time during our interview. She recounts how she experienced a forced change of floor during a shift.

“Only one evening, I understood the entire catastrophe of the health system. You need to know how a person takes their medication. Do I crush them? Do I put them in applesauce? Should I get yogurt? Do I make the person drink first? After ? When you have 32 on your floor like that…”

Marie-Paule Lebel entered religion to take care of the widow and the orphan, to have the opportunity to see the world and make a difference, for “the freedom of action and thought” that this role would provide him.

Today, when she looks in the rearview mirror, she finds that she had a “beautiful, full life, a meaningful life.”