People & Culture

Placing the Pandemic in Perspective: Cooking up comfort on the streets of Montreal

The death of an unhoused Innu man inspired an innovative and compassionate street outreach during the nightly curfew in 2021

  • Feb 23, 2023
  • 1,819 words
  • 8 minutes
Advocates for the homeless hold a protest against the COVID-19 curfew Monday, January 11, 2021 in Montreal. (Photo: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz)
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Placing the Pandemic in Perspective is a multimedia project to collect and share how Canadians’ experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic were — and continue to be — shaped by place. Visit the project website to read more stories and add your own. 

Two figures, both Innu from the traditional territories of the Innu First Nations in northeastern Quebec, defined the experience of life on the street for unhoused people during the province’s five-month nightly curfew in 2021: Raphaël André and Alexandra Ambroise.

Raphaël André, whose death by cold in a chemical toilet on the eighth night of curfew galvanized legal action to exempt unhoused people from the curfew, was from the Innu Nation of Matimekush-Lac John, near the border between Quebec and Labrador. Matimekush-Lac John is close to the town of Schefferville, more than 1,100 kilometres northeast of Montreal, but disconnected from the highway system and accessible only by air or train.

Born to a father who maintained Innu hunting traditions, André was proud of his ancestry but struggled with addiction to alcohol, which had fueled a hard life of disturbing experiences. He had been off and on the street for a while. Well-liked in the Milton-Parc community and close to his family, André lived for his relationship with his nieces and nephews. He was at his best during the years he lived in Sept-Îles, looking after his niece’s children so she could go to school. Everyone who knew him speaks of his kindness.

His cousin Pamela Vollant-Chemaganish told Le Devoir that André was tired of living on the margins of society. “He dreamed of finding a wife, a job, and a stable life,” she said. “I smile and I have trouble saying that, because he said it so often.”

Overrepresented, underserved

Indigenous people make up just 2.7 per cent of the population of Montreal, but they are overrepresented among unhoused Montrealers. In the years leading up to the pandemic, many Indigenous unhoused people clustered around Cabot Square in the west end of downtown, which has been a gathering spot for homeless people for decades. It is notable for the density of its Indigenous population: more than any other neighbourhood in Montreal, the homeless population at Cabot Square is predominantly Inuit (not to be confused with Innu: Innu Nations are First Nations, not Inuit, and speak a language related to James Bay Cree).

This population has been fuelled by the proximity of the YMCA and small hotels in which Inuit were traditionally housed after flying south for medical care from their communities in northern Quebec’s Nunavik region. Some arrive from tiny, isolated Arctic communities (10 of 14 Nunavik communities have fewer than 1,000 people) for medical procedures in huge and daunting hospitals, before being housed in the core of one of Canada’s densest urban communities.

Though Ullivik, a Nunavik-operated residence for Nunavimmiut (Nunavik Inuit) seeking medical care, opened near the airport in Montreal’s Dorval suburb in 2017, it has been plagued with organizational problems, while the community of unhoused Inuit near Cabot Square has been established for decades in the area where Inuit patients used to be housed. In both cases, exposure to either Montreal’s teeming downtown or semi-industrial suburbs have been a recipe for profound culture shock, distress, and depression that encourages people to self-medicate with alcohol or seek community in local bars. Exacerbating any decision to remain in Montreal is the enormous cost to Inuit of getting back home—Nunavik communities are fly-in only, and the cost of plane tickets to the North from Montreal can easily be four or five times the price of a flight to Europe.

All that presumes there is room to house Inuit medical patients, which is not always the case. Nullukie, a 66-year-old man from the northern village of Akulivik (population 642), currently stays at the PAQ 2, a shelter for unhoused Indigenous people near St-Laurent metro in downtown Montreal.

“When COVID came,” he recalls, “I [had to go] to the hospital. When I got back from the hospital, they told me they had no room. That’s the reason I’m still here. I’ve been over a year now. I wanted to go home but they told me I had no ticket. I have no ID.”

In recent years, the closure and relocation of several shelters has shifted the demographics of Montreal’s unhoused communities. After the Open Door shelter was forced to close its original Cabot Square location, it reopened in Milton-Parc. Subsequently, the numbers of unhoused people in that neighbourhood went up, and many in that community are Indigenous.

Raising the Raphaël André Memorial Tent

Alexandra Ambroise was born and raised in the Innu Nation of Uashat-Maliotenam, 500 kilometres south of Matimekush-Lac John and a 900-kilometre drive northeast of Montreal. Uashat-Maliotenam borders the city of Sept-Îles on Quebec’s North Shore; Ambroise spent 10 years as a police officer there before later becoming an investigator with the Viens Commission, which studied relations between Quebec’s public services and Indigenous people. Ambroise was in her first year of a law degree in Montreal when the pandemic hit. When Raphaël André died, she heard right away through Facebook.

“I knew him,” she says. “All Innus know one another.”

Though Ambroise was closer with André’s sister, she knew Raphaël from his time in Uashat-Maliotenam and Sept-Îles, a central point at which people from various Innu communities routinely end up for medical appointments and shopping.

Recalling the news of André’s death, she shakes her head. “To know an Innu died in the streets of Montreal,” she says slowly. “If he’d been another Native person … that would have affected me all the same. But someone from my community—it’s even worse.”

Things happened quickly for Ambroise. News of André’s death broke on a Monday. On Friday, representatives from le Nation Innue, a leadership body representing the nine Innu Nations inside Quebec borders, called to ask Ambroise whether she could coordinate the creation and operation of an emergency overnight tent shelter downtown for unhoused Indigenous people. They also told her they needed it open by Monday.

Ambroise put her studies aside and went to work. The Raphaël André Memorial Tent opened that Monday in Cabot Square. The tent was a warming space above all, open for the duration of the curfew, from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. (later extended to 6 a.m., since there was nowhere for anyone to go at 5) and offering an array of services. The tent offered 15 spots for people to sleep in—chairs at first, then eventually mattresses on the floor. There was also food—good food, upon which Ambroise and her team prided themselves—and water, and coats, mitts, and scarves for people to take.

What was supposed to be a two-week project to help the unhoused through the coldest part of the winter was ultimately able to stay open for 15 months, during which time it was accessed more than 100,000 times. “At the beginning, we were serving 25 or 30 people a night,” Ambroise recalls. “Then word traveled. By the end, we were getting a minimum of 300 people.”

Ambroise kept daily statistics about how many people used the tent and what they used it for, which allowed her to understand the enormous needs of the many people living homeless around Cabot Square.

The square is already served by the Resilience Day Centre, which worked in concert with the Raphaël André Memorial Tent (open at night), allowing Ambroise’s team to cook meals in its kitchen before carrying them across the street.

Ambroise credits the tent’s popularity in part to her constant quest to get decent food. Innu culture has been shaped by thousands of years of struggle against starvation, and as a result, sharing food is a paramount value in Innu communities.

“I wanted our food to be inviting,” says Ambroise. “Just because these are people living with homelessness doesn’t mean they should eat garbage.”

You should have seen their faces when they heard me say the word ‘caribou!’ I still get goosebumps.

Alexandra Ambroise

A community effort

On any given night at the Raphaël André Tent, Ambroise aimed to offer a better quality of food than was available at any other shelter. But she also began thinking about how to make a few special meals.

“I said to myself, ‘I’m Innu. I like to eat caribou, salmon—what can I do to try to offer this food?’ I made an appeal on Facebook, and my God, the things I received! Caribou. Salmon. Ptarmigan. Cloudberries. I also got clothes. I received donations from Pessamit, from Uashat-Maliotenam, from Matimekush-Lac John, from Matshiteuiau.

“There’s a sense of sharing in Innu communities,” she adds. “If there’s a tragic event in one community, all the other communities come out to support the community that’s been touched.”

Air Inuit, which flies in many Innu communities, agreed to carry donations for the Raphaël André Tent from northern airports. At the same time, support was flowing in from Mohawk Territories located off the island of Montreal. As a result of these donations, Ambroise and her team were able to serve four feasts of traditional Northern foods. Because she knew there were unhoused Indigenous people in different areas of the city, Ambroise cooked enough country food that her team could carry it around to different neighbourhoods, trying to find all areas where unhoused Indigenous people congregated.

“You should have seen their faces when they heard me say the word ‘caribou’!” she recalls. “I still get goosebumps. Their eyes lit up. It isn’t often people in the street can get traditional meats.”

The tent gave Ambroise a new sense of purpose. Though she had nearly always worked in positions of service to her community, she had never before worked with unhoused people. She found applying traditional Innu values of sharing and respect to her interactions helped the project run smoothly.

“It was comforting to arrive each night and make sure we weren’t missing anything,” she says. “In Cabot Square there are these concrete benches, and right before we started giving the food out, I’d go stand on the benches to make sure I could see everyone, and that everything was going well, and no one was missing anything. You’ve got 300 people waiting on a meal or a coffee or a place to be and chat with other people. People liked that. People told me they sensed that I wanted everything to work well.”

The tent was especially designed to appeal to unhoused people by its comparatively low number of rules, which Ambroise says set it apart from other neighbourhood services. “Some of those were too regulated,” she says, “so the tent became the real last resort. [In other places], you can’t come in smelling like alcohol. Where else can you go? To the Raphaël André Tent.”


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