Boom and bust: Homelessness crisis grips Val-d’Or

This is the story of the people who end up down and out in a city overflowing with mining cash
Dinner line at La Piaule (Christopher Curtis)
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VAL-D’OR — This is a hard place.

It’s a gold mining town, a city built around a pit where machines pierce the earth’s crust and strip it bare.

Val-d’Or is carved into some of the planet’s oldest metamorphic rocks, formations the size of European countries, formations so old they predate humanity by billions of years. It’s on a fault line between the forests of Outaouais to the south and the icy rivers that flow from James Bay about a day’s drive north.

To live here is to struggle against high winds, frozen soil and long winters. And when the snow finally melts, most everything gets covered in a film of dust and mud.

It is a hard place, not somewhere you’d want to be stuck living on the streets.

And yet homelessness is a growing problem in Val-d’Or. Over the past year, there’s been a 59 per cent jump in the number of people using the city’s only emergency shelter, La Piaule.

Some 461 people used the shelter between April 2019 and March of 2020. And that’s in a city of just 32,000 people. To give you some perspective, it would be as though 26,000 homeless called Montreal home (or about nine times its current homeless population).

“Until these nations have access to adequate housing, people will end up on the streets.”

This is the story of the people who end up down and out in a city overflowing with mining cash. It contains the worst of Val-d’Or — institutionalized racism, drugs, alcohol and allegations of human trafficking — but its best as well.

People get lost here but they also find help. They’re shunned by the landlords and some merchants but they’re also welcomed by a coalition of settlers and Indigenous allies in the city.

Ultimately, it is hopeful.

A rollicking tune

Matthias was playing his harmonica on a park bench when I met him last month.

The wind blew hard down Sullivan Rd. that afternoon. It felt like the damp air cut right to the bone. Matthias sat next to some friends, entertaining them with his music.

“Where did you learn to play like that?” I ask.

“I would sit with my father and he would say, ‘Just pay attention,’” Matthias said.

“So I watched and I learned. He could play every instrument, my dad.”

Just then, Matthias broke into a rollicking tune, stomping his left foot as the rhythm flowed from his dry lips through the mouth harp. He stopped to catch his breath.

“Not as young as I used to be,” he said.

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Matthias needs a walker to get around because of a nagging hip injury. He spends his days at the park and a day centre called Chez Willie. At night he lines up for a warm meal at La Piaule, where he sleeps on a cot in a room next to a dozen other men. Some of them snore, he says, smiling.

Like most of the people who use the emergency shelter, Matthias is Indigenous.

Though Indigenous folk make up between 6 and 10 per cent of Val-d’Or’s population, two-thirds of the people who sleep at La Piaule are Indigenous.

Refugees in their own country

Matthias came to Val-d’Or from Barrière Lake, an Anishnaabe reserve in the middle of La Vérendrye wildlife reserve a few hours south of the city.

There aren’t many reasons for people to stick around Barrière Lake. Logging in the area is depleting the forest of moose and other staples of the Anishinaabe diet. The forestry sector also flooded traplines in the 1920s so logs could be floated south toward Ottawa.

And that reservoir continues to cause problems for the residents of Barrière Lake. When the water rises and recedes in the spring, it shifts the sandy earth under the reserve, leaving dozens of homes with cracked foundations.

“I may never go back home,” said Matthias. His hands shook and the skin on his face was cracked. He presented that thought — that he may one day die on the streets — with an awkward smile.

In some way, the people who wind up in Val-d’Or are refugees in their own country, forced to leave their homes because to exist the way they always have is an inconvenience to resource extraction.

Across the wildlife preserve from Barrière Lake, in Kitcisakik, more Anishnaabe territory was flooded in the 1960s to make way for a Hydro-Québec dam. It’s no small irony that the community isn’t powered by Quebec’s massive electrical grid but by diesel generators that burn fuel year-round.

Also ironic is the fact that in a land surrounded by lakes and rivers, the residents of Kitcisakik don’t have access to clean running water. A small kitchen fire can burn down a house long before hoses can be mobilized to put it out.

It was a house fire that led Cynthia to give up on life in Kitcisakik. Cynthia’s friends say that after her family home burned down, she placed her children with relatives and left the territory for Val-d’Or.

It didn’t take long for her to fall into street life, where she started getting hassled by police and spent a lot of her time at the shelter. And though she wound up finding work and sobriety through La Piaule, Cynthia ultimately lost a years long battle with depression. She took her life in 2017.

Adding to the pressure on these communities are decades of federal funding caps on First Nations housing, infrastructure and education that hardly kept pace with a young and rapidly growing Indigenous population in the region.

Often, people have little choice but to leave their home communities in hopes of a better future somewhere else. And in Anishnaabe country, that means going to the closest big city, Val-d’Or.

“We can have a good strategy to fight homelessness on the ground in Val-d’Or but we’re only attacking a symptom of a much larger problem,” said Roméo Saganash, the Member of Parliament who represented Val-d’Or between 2011 and 2019.

“Until these nations have access to adequate housing, people will end up on the streets. Until their territorial rights are respected, people will end up on the streets. Until there’s a future for them in their own territory, people will end up on the streets.

“Everything being done to help the homeless in Val-d’Or is great but it’s a Band-Aid on a gaping wound.”

Christopher Curtis

‘People who’ve survived a lot’

In a city full of rough edges, Kim Lévesque’s smile is a beacon.

Lévesque works at La Piaule, helping people get sober, find an apartment or simply have a few peaceful hours to themselves.

She presents a gruff exterior, sporting a Levi’s work shirt, tattooed forearms, a pierced lip and pack of Viceroy cigarettes never too far out of reach. But this seems only to make her more approachable.

“It’s hard for people to ask for help,” said Lévesque, the longest-serving worker at La Piaule. “And it can be hard for people to open up as well. So you have to be there, just be there and let them know you’ll be there until they’re ready.

“Someone might not say a word in therapy, but then you join them outside for a cigarette and the floodgates open. What we see here, consistently, is people who’ve survived a lot and who are trying to heal the best way they know how.”

A man who sat next to Matthias in the park said he fell into a deep depression after losing his wife and two of his children in a car wreck. His nose is off-set and scars line his face. He spoke softly.

He said he carries the loss of his family every day.

Another man — who goes by Jeremiah — came to Val-d’Or from Cree territory because he was in love. A few years back he slipped on the ice and tore the ligaments in his knees.

He was a foreman on a team of lumberjacks but his injury prevented him from going back to that life. Now he sat on a cold picnic table outside La Piaule, waiting for his turn to eat a warm meal.

Even the luckiest workers earn their pay cheques with aching joints and sore muscles.

Just a few feet from Jeremiah was a woman who fled her reserve because of an abusive husband. She had nowhere left to go. So she paced back and forth on the hard ground, warming herself up as the smell of hamburgers wafted from La Piaule’s kitchen.

Jerry Anichnapéo, another regular at the shelter, has been on and off the streets for 32 years. But on Dec. 1, he moved into his own apartment.

The circumstances that pushed him into a life of addiction are hauntingly familiar. He was sent to residential school as a child, sexually assaulted by a teacher and, when he denounced his abuser, he was called a liar.

That trauma replayed itself in his head for years so he drowned it out with alcohol.

“I’m still here, still fighting, still standing on my own two feet,” he said. “All I ever wanted was to be an artist. Instead I am a fighter, someone who has to defend the other homeless, someone who has to fight to be heard, to be believed. I’m 50 years old and I’ve had to fight all my life.

“I’m tired of it.”

A community for those without one

Simply finding a landlord that would take Anichnapéo’s money was no easy task. Lévesque says she has to get creative to help her Indigenous clients find housing.

“Sometimes I have to call the landlord for them because if they hear an Anishnaabe accent, the apartment has ‘suddenly just been rented,’” Lévesque said. “We’ll visit the apartment together and I just say I’m a friend, not that I work at a homeless shelter. That’s also a strike against them.

“You see a lot of racism on the job but you see the community rally together as well.”

It’s true that the town is a hard place, that racism and hate have embedded themselves deeply in some of its institutions, but La Piaule speaks to a much softer side of Val-d’Or.

Many of the people who fall on hard times here don’t have family and friends to lean on. So they discover that, in some sense, the community becomes a family to them.

The shelter began as a sort of grassroots experiment, a series of good-natured locals offering meals and clothing out of their homes on Sullivan Rd. in the 1980s.

Now La Piaule’s three storeys tower over the neighbouring duplexes and bungalows. It has a restaurant-quality kitchen, dorm rooms that can accommodate 40 people overnight and a cafeteria. Some of its staff are former clients who managed to fight their way off the streets.

Whereas it was once kept together by a sort of pass-the-hat initiative, it receives the bulk of its over $500,000 a year in funding from Quebec’s health ministry. The city of Val-d’Or and the federal government give about $50,000 apiece, and some of the bigger mines donate winter coats, food and volunteers.

“There is a real sense of togetherness, of solidarity out here,” said Stéphanie Quesnel, the shelter’s director. “We don’t have the resources that exist in a city like Montreal, and homelessness at the scale we’re seeing is a relatively new phenomenon.

“So we’ve had to learn best practices on the fly. We go to conferences, we take whatever knowledge we can from the experts in the field and we try to use it to help our people.”

On her way out the door during a cold afternoon last month, Quesnel stopped to speak to her workers and to the people eating supper. She squatted next to the diners, listening to their concerns, taking mental notes and repeating them to herself as she walked out the door to have dinner with her family.

It was close to 6 p.m., about an hour after she was due to leave.

“Sometimes our shifts feel more like suggestions,” said Quesnel. “We’re not doing this to get rich. If someone’s in a crisis, we stay late. If a colleague is burning out, we pick up each other’s shifts.

“We see our clients die on the streets, we see them suffer unimaginable trauma. We see them succeed too. I was on my way out the door one night when one of my clients told me he really felt like using.

“There was snow all over our walkway so I asked him if he’d come out with me and help shovel it. When we were done and our hearts were pumping from the plowing, he said he felt better. That’s the sort of thing you get out of this work.

“Sometimes I’ll have former clients get their lives back on track and they get a good job in the mines. They’ll come by in their fancy new trucks to say hello and check in.

“I’ll bug them and say, ‘Goddammit, when is it my turn to be rich? Give me a drill and watch me go.’”

Jerry Anichnapéo
Christopher Curtis

Hard edges

This is a boomtown.

People come here from all over Quebec to make their fortune working in the mines. A job as a driller, truck driver or heavy machine operator can earn someone twice what they might make as a trade worker down south.

It isn’t easy money. Even the luckiest workers earn their pay cheques with aching joints and sore muscles. Then there are the ones who pay a greater price — broken bones, torn flesh or a creeping sense of isolation from working such long hours away from home.

Whatever the cause of their pain, sometimes workers here turn to a night out to round off some of those hard edges. Sometimes a night out turns into a weekend, a few weeknights and then a full-blown addiction.

One man, waiting outside La Piaule, spoke about going down that road. He said he was laid off from one of the local mines when the price of minerals plummeted in 2015.

By then he’d already been accustomed to the high life — paying for rounds at his favourite 3rd Ave. bars, stumbling from Le Manoir to the Irish pub and other watering holes that line the main drag before doing it all over again the next night and the night after that.

“You keep living that life for a while and pretty soon you’re on the street, drinking Black Label out of a 40-ounce bottle,” he said. “I’m sober now.”

With gold at $2,000 an ounce, the money that pours into Val-d’Or can fuel an illicit drug market not normally seen in a city of 32,000 residents.

“When we hear her name, we want it to be linked to something beautiful.”

On my first night in a downtown motel last month, I sat on the balcony and watched a series of drug deals in the parking lot. A sporty white Honda would pull up and within a few minutes the driver would roll down his window and trade cash for something he dropped into the buyer’s palm before driving off.

That transaction repeated itself every half hour or so.

By 4 a.m. someone in the room next door was loudly accusing her boyfriend of infidelity. He stormed off.

“Cocaine,” I thought.

And where there are narcotics, motels and lonely men, sex work is never too far off either.

“There is a dynamic you’ll see sometimes where you have a sex worker and her pimp both staying at La Piaule. The men and women sleep in separate dorms but it presents us with ethical questions,” said Quesnel.

“We don’t judge people here, we practice harm reduction but we want people to be safe. But there can be abusive dynamics on the streets and we have to make sure the women know their rights and have the space to make their own decisions.”

Five years ago, this city’s power structure was shaken when 12 Indigenous women came forward to allege they were being sexually and physically abused by police in Val-d’Or.

One claimed she’d been coerced into performing sexual favours for officers in exchange for cash. Her claims were never proven in court and lawyers representing the police in Val-d’Or roundly reject the accusation.

“The women who came forward, most had been on the streets and some were into prositution,” said Édith Cloutier, the executive director of Val-d’Or’s Native Friendship Centre. “It’s hard to call it sex work because women, in this city, are trafficked. It isn’t a choice, in a lot of cases.”

Beautiful work

Five years ago, the police cracked down on a coke bar run by the Hells Angels, arresting its owners and the traffickers who ran it before seizing the building.

Now, it’s just a hole in the ground across from the Giant Tiger on 3rd Ave.

Soon it will be transitional housing where dozens of homeless can live in their own one-bedroom apartment while having access to a caseworker that’ll help ease their transition from street life.

The working name of the housing unit is “Chateau Marie-Ève,” named after Marie-Ève Charron, a former client at La Piaule who was murdered in 2016. In the aftermath of her death and trial of her killer, much was made of Charron’s “personal problems.”

Quesnel said it would be a more fitting tribute to Charron to have her name associated with something that inspires hope.

Her killer is serving a prison sentence for involuntary manslaughter and Quesnel says that, over time, that awful memory will make way for a much better legacy.

“Marie-Ève was a member of this community, she was beloved, she deserves to be honoured,” Quesnel said. “When we hear her name, we want it to be linked to something beautiful. And the work that our people do, that work that our clients do to get to a better place, that’s something beautiful.”

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