Street life for aboriginal poor in Montreal proving more and more deadly
As night falls over Montreal, the disturbing reality facing many First Nations people in this city becomes apparent as the park benches, alleyways and stairwells surrounding Cabot Square, at Atwater metro, transform into sleeping dens for dozens of urban indigenous people, most originating from Northern Quebec.
As the winter months rest around the corner, fear of freezing deaths within Montreal’s urban indigenous communities is on the rise.
"[E]xposure to the elements is a major concern throughout the year, especially in the freezing months," explains Brett Pineau, co-ordinator of the street patrol team for Montreal’s Native Friendship Centre, a non-profit community organization on the corner of St-Laurent and Ontario that serves an estimated 1,750 indigenous people in the greater Montreal area. "In January, February, as temperatures drop to minus 25 [Celsius] or lower, a number of Montreal’s urban aboriginals fall asleep at night and never wake up the next morning."
"Each year the Native Friendship Centre loses community members to the streets," continues Annie Pisuktie, an Inuktitut-speaking outreach worker for the centre.
Around five indigenous people die on the streets of Montreal each year due to multiple factors including freezing, drug overdose and physical abuse or street violence, according to the centre. The majority of indigenous people who die on Montreal streets are from Northern Quebec’s Inuit communities or from Nunavut.
"Three years ago my niece died on the streets of Montreal," explains Pisuktie. "After the death, as we were in mourning, her body stayed in the morgue for two full weeks as I frantically raised the thousands [of dollars] involved in sending the body back to the north, without any assistance from the government."
Street suicide is another growing reality for urban First Nations in Montreal, according to the Native Friendship Centre.
"One man who was in contact with us at the centre recently committed suicide on the street," continues Pisuktie. "This man who took his own life had been beaten by the Montreal police numerous times in the past, and when a friend called the police in the middle of a dispute, [he] committed suicide that same evening."
Walking around in the early morning hours, accompanied by an outreach team from Montreal’s only grassroots centre servicing urban indigenous people, quickly illustrates the striking extent of the crisis facing Montreal’s homeless First Nations people. Alleged abuses and violence at the hands of police are widely discussed in conversations that crisscross between English, French and Inuktitut in city alleyways.
"Many people from our communities end up in Montreal for medical reasons, specialized medical treatment, which you can’t access on the reservations," says Pineau. "Given that life on the reservation in Northern Quebec is basically Third World conditions, often people are forced to relocate to the city as basic needs on the reservations aren’t being met in terms of health care, education [and] clean drinking water."
Relocating to Montreal from Northern Quebec translates into major readjustments in terms of language, culture and lifestyle.
"Most people in Canada don’t understand the ongoing trauma facing our people due to colonization. Rage is still inside of our people, as many of our families were ripped apart by the Canadian government," continues Joey Saganash, a youth outreach worker at the centre, "especially in past generations when many children went to government residential schools and never returned."
Life for indigenous people on the streets of Montreal is like war. "Our people are on the streets, facing a hard life of drugs, alcohol, cold weather," explains Saganash. "You can look really good coming into the street, and five years later you can look like you went through a war. Every day there is danger coming at you."
Information on the Native Friendship Centre is at www.nfcm.org.