A 40-year-old man recently went on a hunger strike recently at a Dartmouth halfway house, just days before he tested positive for COVID-19.
Cecil Boutilier, who is on parole at Jamieson Centre on Morris Drive, said he went on the hunger strike to draw attention to COVID restrictions at the centre.
“COVID is being passed around right under my nose, and my request to isolate elsewhere is denied,” Boutilier said when he first spoke with the Halifax Examiner.
Despite his efforts, on Wednesday, January 19, Boutilier woke up sick and tested positive for COVID.
Boutilier describes Jamieson Centre as a multi-level facility being made up of several pods. Each pod is made up of eight small bedrooms, two bathrooms, a kitchen, a common area, and a hallway that loops around.
He said after a resident in his pod tested positive for COVID and was moved to an isolated pod, he and others on his floor were forced to isolate in their rooms. Boutilier said they were only allowed to leave to use the kitchen and bathroom.
He said he didn’t feel his pod had been properly — if at all — sanitized, and that other residents also then began showing symptoms.
Boutilier said despite testing negative on multiple occasions, he and the others in his pod were required to isolate for two weeks, which he said is double the amount of time required by Public Health.
Six days after that, on January 16, Boutilier said yet another resident in his pod tested positive for COVID-19 — as he predicted — and the two-week isolation period started over yet again, nearly two weeks after the initial isolation lockdown.
Boutilier said he started his hunger strike after eating lunch that Sunday. He said his aim was not only to draw attention to the situation but to reduce the frequency of having to leave his pod to use the bathroom where he felt he was susceptible to contracting COVID.
In an e-mail, Shelley Lawrence, the regional manager for communications with Corrections Service Canada responded to the Examiner’s request for comment about Boutilier’s claims about the isolation requirements. Lawrence wrote:
“Everyone’s health and safety continue to be a top priority for Correctional Service Canada (CSC). Since the start of the pandemic, CSC has been committed to reducing the risks of COVID-19 in all of our operations and keeping offenders, our employees, and the public safe. We work with the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), local public health, as well as unions and stakeholders to take all steps needed in relation to the pandemic.
There is currently one positive COVID-19 case at the Jamieson Community Correctional Centre (CCC). As a result, residents were asked to self-isolate and are being offered testing. One offender has expressed concerns about the measures in place and staff are working with this offender to resolve them. To ensure the offender’s well being, they are being monitored by health care staff and are in discussions with their Parole Officer. CSC has protocols in place regarding quarantine, much like we do in the community when we are a close contact of a positive case. This helps to prevent further spread of the virus. As these are congregate living settings, we ask all of our CCC residents to help do their part to protect themselves and others. In turn, this helps to protect our communities.
We will continue to monitor this situation closely to ensure everyone’s health and safety.”
Boutilier ended his hunger strike when he tested positive. Still, he’s advocating against other restrictions in the house he said are affecting his work.
Learning to draw
Boutilier said he has been in and out of jail his whole life. He has a series of convictions involving car theft. His most recent car theft in 2015 resulted in a manslaughter conviction — his second federal conviction — after he collided with another vehicle while being pursued in a high-speed chase.
“It was never my intention to hurt anybody, let alone take another human being’s life,” he said. “It’s something that I been dealing with and struggling with ever since.”
During his previous federal conviction, Boutilier said he learned to draw after watching and picking it up from an older gentleman who was his cellmate.
“I would sit on my bunk sometimes and watch him,” Boutilier. “I was amazed by it. How he could bring a picture to life with a pencil.”
He said his cellmate, who would sell drawings to other inmates, eventually encouraged him to start drawing after Boutilier had expressed interest.
“He just said to me one day, ‘You said you wish you could do it. Why can’t you?’”
“He gave me a couple pointers, I took that, and I ran with it,” he said.
Boutilier said he started getting good quickly, and he too started drawing pictures for friends. Eventually, he said that one person asked if he could get a tattoo of one of his drawings. He said he then built a tattoo machine and started doing tattoos for inmates in prison.
No More Excuses
During his most recent sentencing, Boutilier was interviewed on several occasions by social worker Robert Wright as part of an Impact of Race and Culture Assessment (IRCA).
Boutilier said the IRCA process helped him give him a better understanding of his life experience and outcomes.
“Experiencing racism in all different forms — it’s not always direct, it’s not always violent,” he said. “A lot of times it’s just as simple as being told no for certain things, or getting a door closed on you.”
Boutilier used his skills as an artist to start a company — a clothing line and tattoo business — that he named NME based on his new outlook on life: No More Excuses.
Boutilier said he wants to open a tattoo shop with a printing press on-site where customers can get t-shirts with the image of their tattoos embedded on them.
“They helped me get where I’m at right now”
After being paroled in June 2021, Boutilier said he ran into NDP MLA Suzy Hansen one day while selling T-shirts for his brand.
He said Hansen sent him an application for a microloan to help get his business going through the North End Startup & Training Program (NEST), a self-described “network of mentors, coaches, experts, and peers” that helps issue microloans to Black and off-reserve Indigenous entrepreneurs in Halifax’s north end.
Boutilier said the NEST Program granted him a $1,900 microloan for NME.
“They helped me get where I’m at right now, that’s where I was able to get better equipment to do my work, my clothes, and stuff like that.”
After that, Boutilier said that someone from NEST put him in touch with a local Black-owned modeling company, Soli Productions Management, about a business opportunity.
“He said they were looking for somebody to do some artwork on some T-shirts they were auctioning off at an upcoming event.”
At the event, a runway fashion show, last month, Solitha Shortte, the group’s owner and creative director presented one of its participants with an in-house scholarship through the company.
Boutilier was hired to design and print 10 T-shirts that helped promote the scholarship program itself, and the shirts were auctioned off at the event with the proceeds going back into the scholarship fund.
Pushing back on the restrictions around his business
Prior to contracting COVID, Boutilier spoke to the Examiner about obstacles he said were put in the way of running his business by his parole officer who works on-site at Jamieson Centre.
He said he’s had to scale back his business operations after his parole officer started implementing and then switching up new policies about what equipment he’s allowed to keep in his room.
“At first he said I couldn’t have my vinyl cutter and my heat press because I’m not allowed, or I’m not authorized to run a business out of a halfway house,” he said.
Boutilier said he was given some initial leeway after he “pushed back a little” and was able to then keep some of the equipment.
“Then he changed the reason [from] I couldn’t run a business to simply … I had too many things in my room, and I had to get rid of them. And then it was my heat press was a fire hazard, so that became the reason I had to get rid of the heat press,” he said.
In the middle of a telephone interview with the Examiner, the topic itself was brought up after Boutilier’s parole officer knocked at his door to let him know he’d be stopping by to collect some of his items. Boutilier was then told he’s only allowed to have two boxes in his room.
“I can only come up with one reason and it’s just being, I don’t wanna say sadistic, but like but being the type of person who feels like it’s their job to send criminals back to prison,” said Boutilier.
“If I tell the story and kind of expose them for not supporting me … for trying to do something positive, I think they could definitely find other ways to kind of bear down on me. I have less than two months on my sentence so there’s not really a whole lot they can do at this point.”