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Voices ᐋ ᐄᔮᔨᐧᒫᓂᐧᐃᒡ

Stop killing poor people

BY Maïtée Labrecque-Saganash Jan 30, 2021

Being stuck in Waswanipi because of the pandemic has its benefits. I travel less and I rest more. I’ve begun playing chess. I’ve begun playing chess. I even started a podcast with my journalist friend Jenn Jefferys. All I needed was a decent microphone and a Zencastr subscription. 

We featured Christopher Curtis in a recent episode. Chris is a former Montreal Gazette journalist who left that joblast year – one of the increasingly rare, and unionized, full-time positions left in mainstream journalism – to start The Rover, a crowdfunded newsletter that brings you “stories the government doesn’t want you to read”. It’s a neat project, and a brave move. 

A familiar face to the Indigenous community in Montreal, Chris is an incredible investigative reporter who shines a bright light on human rights violations in Quebec.

For our podcast episode we discussed a topic that hits home for me – homelessness. 

A few years ago, I struggled with what is called hidden homelessness. People living in this situation don’t show up in statistics because they are less visible than those who spend most of their time on the streets or in shelters. I lived on my friends’ couches and at other insecure accommodations for months with not enough money to feed myself properly.

During the podcast Chris told us that, because of the pandemic, day shelters and other resources for the houseless community are closed. Day shelters were a good way to keep track of individuals, especially Indigenous women, he noted. But that has changed.

“Now that day shelters are closed, people are disappearing,” he observed. “We don’t know if they’re dead, if they had Covid-19, or if they’re hospitalized.” 

On top of that, people who live with addictions are often denied a bed and other resources solely because they use. 

It doesn’t make sense. Getting sober without a stable roof above one’s head or medical assistance is next to impossible. Refusing to provide shelter and social housing to people in precarious situations shows that governments intentionally keep poor people… well, poor. I still can’t believe that the idea that housing is a basic human right is considered radical.

When Premier François Legault announced Quebec’s 8pm-to-5am curfew in early January, many organizations told him it shouldn’t include homeless people. Imposing fines up to $6,000 on penniless people for not being home after 8pm – even though they have no home to go to – is nothing less than cruelty. 

Some shelters are closed, and most of those that remain open are at full capacity. As well, many homeless folks are reluctant to sleep in shelters because they don’t want to catch Covid-19 given that there are frequent outbreaks in this community. 

As the pandemic and other issues have demonstrated, however, Legault’s government is not known for its common sense. And in this case, once again, they chose not to listen to stakeholders. 

While it has not been shown to have saved lives, Legault’s curfew decree is the clear cause of at least one death. The victim, Raphaël André of Matimekush, froze to death in Montreal while trying to hide from police after curfew. And this, only feet away from a shelter, Open Door, which is usually open 24/7, but must now close at 9:30pm due to the curfew restrictions.

Legault’s reaction to this tragedy? We can’t loosen the rules because some people might pretend to be homeless. Much better to let people die, obviously.

This pandemic exacerbates everything that is wrong in our politics. After letting the elderly die of Covid-19 in underfunded, low-waged, long-term care facilities, Legault’s government is willingly sacrificing lives in the homeless community – to which many Indigenous people belong. 

This government, and especially Premier Legault, should be held to account. 

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Maïtée Labrecque-Saganash is Cree from Waswanipi, and is the Nation’s newest columnist. She is an activist and writer who also has a regular column in Montreal’s French Metro Newspaper.