Just before announcing that Resilience Montreal would receive $3 million from the Quebec government for a permanent homeless shelter, Nakuset still couldn’t believe it was really happening.
“It’s $3 million, not $3?” the director of Resilience Montreal and the Native Women Shelter remembers asking. “It was perplexing because after working in the community for over 20 years, no one has ever bought a building for us. I don’t think this has ever happened to any other Native organization. It never happens!”
It’s the result of a collaboration between Nakuset and Ian Lafrenière, the former Montreal police officer who was appointed Indigenous Affairs Minister in October following the death of Joyce Echaquan. Like many, Nakuset was initially skeptical of his appointment but can’t deny he’s getting results.
“I was questioning why they would think it would be appropriate to have a former police officer running Indigenous services,” Nakuset recalled thinking. “He’s on a roll. I’ve worked with other political people and with Ian it’s happening. I [told him], ‘For a white man, you actually came through.’ I’m still pinching myself.”
Since November, Lafrenière has announced $15 million in funding to improve Indigenous access and trust in the healthcare system as well as a new joint patrol that pairs police with social workers from the Native Friendship Centre to help intervene in cases involving Montreal’s Indigenous community.
“There was an urgency to act [before the offer expired],” said Lafrenière regarding the Resilience funding. “The pressure is so high [because] buildings are getting extremely costly. We need resources close to Cabot Square.”
Although Quebec had previously announced an additional $600,000 contribution, it wasn’t expected to be enough for real estate in downtown’s west end. Since November 2019, Resilience has served as a much-needed day centre for the area’s predominantly Inuit homeless after the Open Door shelter was forced to relocate a year earlier.
However, it was always known that the former restaurant housing Resilience would be soon demolished to make room for luxury condos. Fortunately, their lease has been extended until April 2022, providing valuable time to make the necessary upgrades to the new building for a smooth transition.
“We spent a long time trying to find another building,” Nakuset told the Nation. “There’s a place that would be a fantastic alternative to what we have now. It’s in the vicinity and a beautiful building – it would feel like a wellness centre. We still have a lot of work to do but it’s a huge stress off our backs.”
The City of Montreal is also contributing to the new building, while seven foundations are collectively covering $1.5 million of its operating budget over three years.
“Beyond providing a meal, a shower, a safe place to rest for those experiencing homeless, [Resilience Montreal] is creating a community for people who are excluded from society, a community where they feel safe,” said Tasha Lackman from the Foundation of Greater Montreal.
Quebec’s curfew has been particularly catastrophic for the city’s homeless population, whose increasing numbers have faced exceptional vulnerabilities since Covid. In late January, a 51-year-old Innu man, Raphaël Napa André, was found frozen to death steps away from the Open Door a week after it had been forced to close overnight.
While a court eventually ruled homeless people exempt from the curfew, there had been growing calls for warming tents, like those used by Red Cross whenever there are humanitarian crises around the world.
Nakuset collaborated with Lafrenière and Michelle Audette to lobby the city for a tent in Cabot Square, which was initially permitted for only two weeks but later extended until March 31. The centre has attracted numerous supporters, including volunteers from the Missinak Indigenous women’s shelter in Quebec City, who braved a snowstorm to help the tent open on time.
“Can you imagine if you’re a homeless person and someone travels three hours to come take care of you?” Nakuset marvelled. “It’s mostly Indigenous people at the tent. They feel the Raphaël André memorial tent is for them.”
The Native Women’s Shelter staff are overseeing the initiative at night, even choosing to keep it open until the metro opens an hour after curfew ends. With Adirondack chairs, a wood floor and heaters, the space can accommodate 16 people at a time although some nights over 40 arrive – one night there were also four dogs. Nakuset is hoping to add nurses and additional staff to attend to frostbite and interact with those waiting outside.
Although visitors are sometimes brought by police or leave by ambulance, Nakuset said the project has gone very smoothly so far. She believes the successful partnership in implementing the tent helped lead to securing the major funding for Resilience Montreal.