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Aboriginal homelessness proving deadly: A life of daily danger

A life of daily danger

Pisuktie, at the Montreal Native Friendship Centre
Photo: Stefan Christoff

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.

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  • by Reuven De Souza - October 11, 2007, 5:13 pm

    Anyone who has been in montreal’s downtown twilight zone near the old Forum can attest to the vaccuum that is the area. Decrepit buildings that are a testement to realty greed while there are too many homeless to count at any given moment around. And at night when some of the aforementioned are whacked out who knows…well ask anyone and the area becomes pretty dangerous.
    While I suppose that it easy to blame everyone else for the deep societal problems that face not only aboriginal but all homeless, ultimately don’t they have the obligation to accept responsibility? The circle is indeed a vicious one…I.m homeless because I drink..I drink because I am homeless. I laud People like Joey Saganash who are trying to stem the tide. But until you can get someone to make that all too difficult step in admitting the problem, trying to get resolution is a mighty step indeed. Good Luck.

  • by Pierre Denis - October 12, 2007, 11:49 am

    I know it might sound a little bit harsh, but the reality described in this article points to the fact that most of the native people facing these problems are just not prepared to “fit” in this city.
    I had the privilege to work and live in the North for many years : places like Kuujjuaq, Iqaluit, Kuujjuarapik to name a few. Useless to mention that these places are VERY different from here. Cultural shock is probably the best way to sum most of the dynamics involved here.
    This being said, I think that the way we handle many of the problems mentionned in this article is just plain wrong right at the start.
    We need to go upstream and ask why, at first, do these people end up in the big city. As the title of my comment imply, as long as these persons will be put and kept out of their “element” the multiple problems they face will just keep coming back in various, but still ugly forms.
    Important issues have to be tackled with right up there. Native people have been living off the land for thousands of years and in a matter of less than a century they have been put in permanent settelments (not always the best “spots”, either) and in contact with a society that is totally different form what they used to know. In such a context, it can be easy to understand that many are being lured by the bright lights of this big city. But like moths with one of those electric “bug killer”, they are heading here for the wrong reasons and not prepared for what they will face.
    One question that arises is “why are these people not feeling at home anymore up there ?” Answers will vary, and what might be found won’t be pretty. But basically, as long as these people will think that they can be better off out of their homeland, they will not fit anywhere. And its not only a question of money, jobs or other economic matters. It goes way deeper : traditions, beliefs, sense of belongning… They need to regrow their roots. Are their leaders listening ? I doubt it !

  • by Richard Williams - October 13, 2007, 11:07 pm

    The title represents my position regarding this topic.
    I concur with Pierre Denis, who raises the question: Why are Aboriginal People leaving their reserves for southern Canada?

    My approach to the numerous problems confronting humankind is to look and listen for solutions, instead of problem perpetuation. This suggestion or solution of mine to discourage Aboriginal People from seeking false hopes in southern Canada and remain on their northern Native land would be a documentary film. Considering there is a vestige left of the Canadian National Film Board, that cinematic institution or individual film maker(s) could produce a film depicting the unhealthy existence caused by us working people in the South. For example, commuters travelling to work in their vehices while contributing to pollution, the rush hour public transportation scenes, the parents or single mothers delivering their children to daycare centers before going to work, the numbers of children having to attend daycare and being cared for by others instead of their parents, the childcare-givers returning from work to pick up their young and to repeat the routine 5 out of 7 days, et cetera.

    The resulting documentary would be made available to Aboriginal People in the North via DVD, CBC (if it’s inclined to), or other means.

    I think this cinematic approach would shed light on us in the South and, when viewed by
    Aboriginal People in the North, encourage them remain at home.
    In addition, the subject matter of the film would encourage Aboriginal film makers to film their people’s solutions to avoid our unhealthy way of life.

  • by P.A. Beaulieu - October 14, 2007, 5:34 pm

    Life on the street is hard for anyone, and those people don’t belong there, as simple as that. They don’t belong, as anyone from a small town going to Montreal will find it hard to adapt, or any Montrealer would find it hard to adapt to life in Ivujivik.

    When you are outside of you “natural” environment, you are more likely to have adaptation problems, or even die. That is what happens to Natives in Montreal, or to anyone else.

  • by Martin Dansky - October 17, 2007, 1:28 pm

    The problems of being there are the result of people placing themselves in situations where true they do not belong but then again if they had the running water, medical service and other facilities that we have in the south, they would not have migrated south. Maybe governments ought to at least stop or ebb the problem at the source to make sure these people stay where their culture is and where they are less exposed to the dangers of living in the open and risk ending up on the wrong side of the law or risk overexposure. But hasn’t that been said before?
    Problems like the aggregation around the forum are better solved by making it easier for help to gain access to those areas. It does become a challenge to enter the area around the forum at night b ut of course if the native population has no other place to gp they are going to gravitate to another area and the problem will not be solved just displaced. It becomes much the same situation that arises from the installation of security cameras on the main which has not reduce neighbourhood crime, just displaced it. These people need to be integrated into the general population and not be treated as objects of rejection.So together with planning their health recovery there has to a plan to either get them to be feel part of the community or offer them a means to return north. Otherwise eyesores such as the Cabot Square one are only going to get worse and more common. Encouraging native people to stay put would help.

  • by Ann Diamond - October 23, 2007, 1:49 pm

    I think white Canadians often underestimate the real extent of the abuses inflicted against aboriginal peoples. We’re unaware of organized genocide carried out by residential schools, some of whose teachers were from religious orders, while others were actual criminals recruited to “wipe you out, one by one” as one BC survivor recalled her teacher telling her elementary class, day after day.

    Phrases like “deep societal problems” and “vicious circle” leave the impression that what has happened to native people is just the sad, inevitable result of their own failure to adapt to a superior civilization. We never use the term “mass murder” — although it’s the only one that springs to mind when you begin to investigate the deaths and disappearances of native children, estimated at 50,000.

    The other link which is never made by our controlled media: secret, lethal military medical experiments carried out in remote areas of Canada, as well as in orphanages and hospitals, beginning around 1939 and continuing through the Cold War. Reports from across Canada corroborate one another: Nazi doctors were brought in secretly and allowed to set up research programs in chemical and biological warfare, in which many native children were used as guinea pigs. Many Duplessis orphans describe similar experiences in Quebec hospitals. Notorious figures like Dr. Ewen Cameron of McGill and even the “saintly” Dr. Heinz Lehmann turned up in secret laboratories near reserves in Alberta, among other places in North America.

    Next time you pass an Indian or Inuit sleeping on the street, stop to ask yourself how you would cope with the loss of your culture, way of life, economic base, and the murder of your children, as the result of programs carried out in secret by churches, government and pillars of a society which is world-renowned for “humanitarianism” –

    Instead, Canada should be known for its sky-high levels of hypocrisy — probably a worse threat to our survival than mercury.

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