With the early arrival of winter weather, there’s reason to celebrate the opening of a new day shelter near Montreal’s Cabot Square, which has long been a gathering space for the city’s homeless Inuit and First Nations people.
Resilience Montreal officially opened November 14 with Mayor Valérie Plante cutting the ribbon alongside Putilik Qumak. Originally from Salluit, Nunavik, Qumak has been homeless in Montreal for about 20 years.
The initiative was launched by Nakuset and Sheila Woodhouse, executive directors of the Native Women’s Shelter and Nazareth Community, respectively.
“It’s definitely crucial because there were no services in the area that help Indigenous people,” Nakuset told the Nation. “When the Open Door left there was a tremendous amount of despair. Of course, just the basic needs of getting food and a place to rest, those disappeared as well.”
Since the Open Door shelter moved to another location last year, an estimated 14 people have died in and around Cabot Square. Nakuset has been working to create this kind of safe space since last spring, approaching potential funding partners and collaborating with numerous groups to establish Resilience Montreal as quickly as possible.
With the help of Architecture Without Borders and over 150 volunteers, the small but dedicated staff transformed the former restaurant into a welcoming and secure space in less than a month. As the lease was only signed October 21, volunteers were still laying down flooring hours before the mayor’s visit.
“I really wanted it to be more than just a shelter,” said Nakuset. “It’s absolutely gorgeous – people walk by and think it’s a high-end café. I think when you change the atmosphere, you show people that you think they’re worthy. When you walk in, that’s exactly how you feel.”
So far, the shelter’s most popular spot is its fireplace, with surrounding benches for people to sit and talk. It also provides meals, beds and quiet spaces for relaxation, with showers to be installed soon. A special office downstairs has been designated as a health clinic – Nakuset has already found reflexology, physiotherapy and hairdressing professionals to offer their services for free.
“We wanted to make it homey, something that is conducive to rest with an area for wellness activities,” Nakuset explained. “When we open our full hours, one floor is going to be dedicated to wellness. It’s going to change things when you have these positive experiences – it gives you a better sense of self-esteem that can lead to making different choices.”
By Christmas, it should be open from 8 am to 8 pm, seven days a week. However, as this building will likely be replaced by luxury condos after its one-year lease, the five-year plan involves immediately finding a second location that will be open 24 hours, with a hospice for the terminally ill and an Indigenous-friendly detox centre.
“A lot of our people can’t access detox and sometimes die on a waiting list,” said Nakuset. “Finding that new location is the next big step. The architects are going to come with us to redo the space that we’re moving into. That’s wonderful because they already understand the concept we have.”
Most emergency shelters are now operating near capacity. An overflow shelter at the former Royal Victoria Hospital will open again this winter, offering expanded services and 150 beds – almost double the number available during last year’s pilot project.
Nakuset said a bus will bring clients to the building on the flanks of Mount Royal after Resilience closes each day at 8 pm.
While there is a rising number of available homeless services, that doesn’t necessarily mean people feel comfortable using them.
“I have been to many homeless shelters and all of them have been run down to the ground by people who have no interest in helping people,” said Marilyn Bearskin, a Cree woman from Chisasibi who has lived on the streets for eight years. “I feel subjected to ridicule by some workers – people who never experienced homelessness have created rules for us.”
Bearskin wrote deeply personal articles for the Nation two decades ago, describing her struggles as a domestic and sexual abuse survivor. By reporting stories of abused women, she encouraged dialogue about domestic violence in Cree society. Nowadays, she’s often found at Montreal’s Native Friendship Centre.
“It seems the more shelters open, the more people are on the streets,” said Bearskin. “We believe we are paving a way when we build infrastructure to accommodate poverty. Real professionalism is not building such tools to maintain the dysfunction we are surrounded by. No one should be poor.”
Despite comprising just 0.6% of Montreal’s population, Indigenous people represent 10% of its homeless. A 2018 study found this leaves many with little connection to the city and recommended creating Indigenous-specific affordable housing projects.
While the Native Women’s Shelter is opening a second-stage housing facility in 2021 for women and children, Nakuset agreed there is a definite need for more supportive housing initiatives.
“This is an actual example of what reconciliation can be, pushing forward with what the needs are and making it very much tailored,” said Nakuset. “Resilience has three Indigenous staff and hopefully we’ll have more – familiar faces ready to empower the clientele.”