VAL-D’OR — Jerry Anichnapéo was exhausted.
His hands shook and his eyes looked like slits cut into hard leather but he still managed a smile.
“The streets take years off your life,” Jerry said. “Because nothing is ever certain, you can never drop your guard. You’re in survival mode 24 hours a day. Your full-time job is being poor.
“Actually it’s like two full-time jobs. The pay isn’t great.”
When I met Jerry last November, he seemed almost resigned to his fate. Sure, he spoke about hope and sobriety but he also knew about the pull of street life.
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It’s a hard routine to break: shuffling between the homeless shelter and bingo hall where he takes naps, lining up for basics like a meal or warm shower, wandering the streets until the pavement until the leather on his boots cracks.
Most nights he would stand in the snow for half an hour just to secure a dry cot for himself at La Piaule, Val-d’Or’s only homeless shelter. Sometimes he slept on a cold scrap of cardboard under the stars.
He’s inside now, living in a shared apartment where he toils away at his autobiography with a pen and paper. In just over 500 handwritten pages, Jerry has detailed the abuse he suffered at residential school, his time in federal prison and the night he thought a police officer was going to execute him and leave his body in a ditch by Highway 117.
“It’s therapeutic,” Jerry says.
Even fragile progress is progress. But what if people like Jerry could have a path from the street to independent living, a place where case workers could help them find the kind of stability they never knew?
Such a place doesn’t exist now, but that will change next year when a transitional housing project overseen by La Piaule opens its doors. In the meantime, Jerry and others like him are forced to navigate a sometimes hostile rental market where they spend up to 90 per cent of their income just to have a roof over their head.
With little left over to live off, many have to rely on food banks, day shelters and panhandling to get by. In the process of surviving, they often fall back into homelessness.
This is a story about the people trying to break that cycle.
Quebec quietly cuts funding for Indigenous housing project
“Annie” came to Val-d’Or to wean herself off amphetamines.
She says it’s the only way she can be a mother to her baby boy again. So she packed her things up last month, left Willy with his father and came to Val-d’Or for treatment.
It hasn’t been easy. Annie keeps her belongings in a locker at La Piaule, where she sleeps each night. Most days are spent using the computer at the Native Friendship Centre so she can find an apartment and get on a waiting list for detox.
“I’m not really drinking anymore, the real problem for me was speed,” she says, standing with a thick folder tucked under her arm. “It got to where I couldn’t live without it. And it made me someone I didn’t like very much. … I carry a lot of pain.”
The addiction didn’t materialize out of thin air. Like so many of her peers, Annie was taken from her parents at “four or five years old” and forced into a boarding school far away from her home in Cree territory.
“I don’t want to talk about what they did to us Natives at school,” she says. “It was bad. That’s all I can say.”
She never got to know her parents or the kind of love any child needs to develop into a functional adult. Now that she has a child of her own, a lot of those memories are resurfacing. She wants to find a better way to handle that than using speed.
“My baby is old enough to call me mama now,” she says. “I could cry just thinking about it. … I want to be the kind of mother he deserves. That’s what I want more than anything in this world.”
Annie would be an ideal candidate for transitional housing — a subsidized apartment where she would have access to a street worker and support staff to help her through a difficult time.
But that’s not possible.
A project by La Piaule to convert a former biker bar into transitional housing will take at least another year to complete and, last month, Quebec quietly announced it wouldn’t be funding a housing project proposed by the Native Friendship Centre.
When Édith Cloutier heard the news, she thought of Matthias, a soft-spoken elder who plays harmonica on the streets of Val-d’Or. The old man has been homeless for years.
“He hides his pain behind his music and his laughter … like a lot of our brothers and sisters,” said Cloutier, the longtime director of Val-d’Or’s Native Friendship Centre. “It’s sad to realize that our collective efforts to create transitional housing for people in Val-d’Or haven’t been heard by those with the power to support us.
“Matthias and his harmonica could bring joy to a communal Indigenous housing project where he’d be safe. But our government programs feel otherwise.”
‘Because that moment won’t last long’
It’s hard to undersell how determined Annie is to get her life back on track.
That she’s willing to sleep in a shelter every night just to get into rehab could tell you that she is taking it seriously. And that’s not including the temptations of street life she has to deal with every single day — access to drugs and alcohol that would, at least temporarily, numb the homesickness and haunting memories that led her to use in the first place.
“One of the challenges we face is capitalizing on that moment when someone is strong enough to get help,” says Kim Lévesque, the interim director at La Piaule. “Because that moment won’t last long.
When you’ve been abused your whole life, the trauma is all-consuming, overpowering. The desire to use is always there because the memories don’t go away. The pain lives inside you, it rewires your brain, it’s not something you can just switch off.
“So when someone says they want help, you can’t come back at them with ‘give me a few weeks to set it up.’ And that’s even harder now that COVID has limited the number of spaces in detox. That doesn’t mean we stop trying.”
Lévesque knows a thing or two about perseverance. During her very first shift at La Piaule, she was slapped by one of the shelter’s residents.
“J’ai mangé une claque,” she says, using the colourful Quebec expression to describe her experience.
“For a second there, I thought ‘Shit, what have I gotten myself into?’ But it was a challenge and I love challenges. There’s never one day that’s like another out here. It’s exciting.”
That was eight years ago.
Lévesque says that when she first came to Val-d’Or, it was the segregation that hit her the hardest. She was raised in a village outside the Timiskaming First Nation on the Quebec-Ontario border.
“It wasn’t abnormal for white kids and Anishinaabe kids to play together, to go to school together,” she says. “Sure, there was racism and there were bad times but we lived among each other. When I got here, it was like stepping into another world. The Indigenous folk and whites didn’t really mix.
“That makes for a much more challenging environment when most of the homeless population is Indigenous. It makes it seem like poverty is someone else’s problem.”
But given her affinity for challenges, Lévesque started to work on solutions.
“We started welcoming more and more people at La Piaule,” she says. “A kid needs to do some volunteering ahead of their first communion? Get them over here, we’ll find something for them. You need to take your class on a field trip? Our door is open.
“The more people come, the more they realize that these homeless people are people too. And they start to want to be a part of the solution.”
Reclaiming youth protection
The shift in attitude Lévesque describes isn’t just anecdotal and it’s consequences are far-reaching. Take someone like Annie, for instance. Not so long ago, an outside youth protection worker would have gotten involved with her case and there’s a good chance Willy would have never seen his mom again.
You take that child away and there’s a good chance that Annie loses that shred of hope she’s still clinging to.
But last year, the Anishinaabe communities of Lac-Simon, Winneway, Kitcisakik and Pikogan struck a deal with the provincial government to take over their own youth protection services.
Of course, this shouldn’t have been necessary, since a 2019 federal bill had already transferred youth protection from outside agencies to First Nations. But Quebec is fighting the bill in court, effectively fighting to keep control over Indigenous children within its borders.
That legal battle didn’t deter Peggy Jérome.
“You should have seen the first draft of the letter I sent the social services minister,” she says, smiling.
“If you think this one was rough, the first was a lot more … I guess we could say it was blunt.”
Jérome was part of the team that managed to force Quebec’s health ministry to exempt the four Anishinaabe communities from their attempts to fight the federal transfer of power. It took nearly two years of emergency planning sessions, community consultations and a paper trail that would drive the most strident accountants mad. But they got it done.
“We had to create our own youth protection system from scratch,” she says.
“Everything from lawyers to insurance companies, from building an organigram (organizational chart) to creating protocols, it was a massive undertaking.
“But the end result is clear: when you give us the ability to keep our children in their home communities, everybody wins.”
Jérome’s Val-d’Or office is a study in organization: colour-coded folders, sticky notes like neon feathers on her computer screen and filing cabinets stuffed with material that goes back decades.
“It used to be, a child that gets taken into the system destroys a family,” says Jérome, who grew up in the dense forests of Rapid Lake First Nation. “And when it’s an outsider doing it, when it happens on the scale we see across Canada, it’s destroying entire First Nations.
“To stop that, you have to understand how it works and how it could be better. That’s what we’re doing.” Annie may be in a bad way but she had the choice to get help, to leave her child with his Indigenous family and retain visitation rights. When I met Annie last month, she was returning from a visit with Willy.
That wouldn’t be possible under the old system.
A broken youth protection system is just one of the many factors driving families apart and contributing to the prevalence of Indigenous homelessness in Val-d’Or. But while it may be one piece of the puzzle, it’s a pretty big piece.
For Annie, it is everything.
“He is my world. I can’t imagine my life without him in it.”
‘To pass along what I learned’
When I came back to Val-d’Or a few weeks ago, Jerry had gone off the grid again.
He was unreachable through our usual channels: a note left with one of the street workers who knows him, his parole officer and a Hail Mary message to his inactive Facebook account.
Nothing. The few who got back to me said they hadn’t seen him in over a month.
When someone on the street goes missing, your mind drifts to some pretty dark places. Human nature, I suppose.
I first met Jerry at an old age club that had been converted to the new headquarters for Chez Willie, an Indigenous day centre in Val-d’Or. We were supposed to talk about his experiences in residential school and his abduction by police a few years ago.
While I knew this wouldn’t be an easy conversation, I hadn’t realized how devastating it was for Jerry to relive that. He insisted on telling his story, on setting the record straight, on making sure he didn’t suffer in vain.
But when the time came to sit down and talk, Jerry had been drinking quite heavily.
“It takes a lot out of him,” one of the street workers said. “We hate seeing him like this.”
So he slept it off for a few hours and that afternoon we sat over a cup of coffee and cookies while elderly folk played bingo in the next room. He spoke about the class action lawsuit against the priests who molested him, about the officer who pulled a gun on him for no reason and about spending 39 months in lockup for unpaid municipal fines.
We parted on good terms, eating sandwiches together in the parking lot of a Subway restaurant. Against better judgement during a pandemic, he gave me a hug and I watched him wander back into the cold city. That night, I slept in a cozy motel room. He went back to the shelter.
So when I couldn’t find him during my visit last month, I worried — irrationally perhaps — that this is where Jerry’s story ends.
It is not.
I finally bumped into Jerry just a few blocks from where we had parted last fall. He seemed more upbeat, said he wanted to get back into treatment.
“I’d like to become a street worker, to give back, to pass along what I learned,” he said.
“Otherwise, what was the point of surviving all this?”