A life of daily danger - in Canada
- Street life for aboriginal poor in Montreal proving more and more deadly
A life of daily danger
by Stefan Christoff
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
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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