It would be nice to remember the good times with Elisapie.
The way she’d shout “Oh my stars!” when something surprised her, or how her face broke into the widest grin when she spoke to her grandchildren on the phone. She brought warmth to the laneways and haunts of west downtown Montreal, where so many of the city’s unhoused find a place to hide when the sun goes down.
But none of that glow will make it into the headlines as news of her death spreads across the city. Police found Elisapie Pootoogook’s body in the construction site of a luxury condo tower on René Levesque Blvd. over the weekend.
She was old and frail, and had come to the city from Inuit territory for medical treatment. Shortly after arriving in Montreal, Elisapie wound up at Cabot Square — a waypoint for the city’s unhoused Indigenous folk. The park on Atwater Ave. is flanked by a half-dozen housing developments that sell buyers on the dream of opulence with a view of the St. Lawrence River.
One night, Elisapie crawled into one of those developments and never came out.
“Elisapie just wanted a safe place to lay her head,” said David Chapman, a shelter worker who knew her. “We know we need more safe spaces for the homeless in this neighbourhood but we keep sending them back into the shadows. You can only roll the dice so many times before the wrong numbers come up.”
Elisapie’s death did not come as a surprise to street workers who have seen the homeless population reach alarming levels since the beginning of the pandemic last year. The COVID-19 recession combined with shelters forced to limit their services to prevent outbreaks means there are more people sleeping outside in Montreal than at any point in the last decade. That’s according to sources in the mayor’s office and at shelters throughout the island.
Public outrage over the crisis peaked last winter when the body of Raphäel André was found in a portable toilet on Parc Ave. He had been turned aside at his usual shelter because of a recent coronavirus outbreak and, just like Elisapie, had nowhere to go. André was also Indigenous.
Faced with inaction from the provincial and municipal governments, it was a group of Indigenous women who came together to launch an overnight emergency shelter in André’s memory. The tent, which was supposed to close last winter, still stands in Cabot Square.
Most nights, about 120 people pass through for a warm meal, clean clothes and a place to nap for a few hours. They sleep in a tent city under the Ville-Marie Expressway, on cardboard scraps in the alleys off Ste-Catherine Street or in stairwells of highrises along De Maisonneuve Blvd.
“The situation on the ground is desperate, we’re running out of money and there’s no guarantee the city will allow us to keep going,” said Nakuset, executive director of the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal. Nakuset coordinates the tent alongside a small team of Indigenous workers.
“More people will die if this tent goes down but it’s just a Band-Aid. We need permanent solutions.”
Last summer, the Coalition Avenir Québec government announced a five-year $280-million plan to fight homelessness across the province. Mayor Valérie Plante was re-elected last week after promising to double the city’s annual budget for homeless services to $6 million.
Between 4,000 and 5,000 people are sleeping on the street on a given night in Montreal, according to estimates provided by a source at city hall. That’s nearly twice what it was before the pandemic came to our shores.
The city inaugurated a wet shelter pilot project at the site of the old Royal Victoria Hospital in January, allowing some unhoused people to drink alcohol under medical supervision. This came after years of lobbying from people like Nakuset and Matthew Pearce of the Old Brewery Mission. The shelter prevented people from going into withdrawal by administering small, regular doses of beer or wine.
“It was launched to meet an urgent need and quite a bit of people were helped,” said Melissa Bellerose, a spokesperson for the Old Brewery Mission. “It didn’t last more than a few months though.” Across town, at Projet Autochtones du Québec, an inpatient wet shelter provides services for Indigenous people whose substance abuse disorder makes it impossible for them to stay at one of the city’s emergency shelters.
But even with such projects in place, people like Elisapie fall through the cracks.
Elisapie, who was in her 60s, drank to cope with a life’s worth of trauma. In the wind-swept tundra of Nunavik — where she was born — families went from living in self-sustaining, nomadic communities to being forced into government housing practically overnight.
When families tried to resist colonization and continue living on the land, the RCMP massacred their sled dogs and arrested parents who refused to send their kids to residential schools. The time I met Elisapie, in 2018, she told me she was old enough to remember a time before the federal “matchbox houses” brought sedentary life to her village in the 1960s.
It was through Chapman that I came to know Elisapie.
He needed a hand taking her to the airport for a flight back home so he gave me a call. We found her sleeping in the Atwater metro station that winter morning. Someone had stolen her boots and she was stressed about making it through the airport with only a photocopy of her identification in hand. She spoke in a sweet, gravelly voice and apologized profusely during the 20-minute drive.
But a coffee, cigarette and some hash browns calmed Elisapie’s nerves. Pretty soon she was on an Air Inuit flight north and, for a moment, Chapman allowed himself to think this would be the time Elisapie finally got a lucky break.
“I’ve probably sent her home two times since then,” said Chapman. “The problem is the narrative keeps repeating itself. There’s inadequate housing in the North, inadequate services down here, so people are stuck between two worlds.
“It becomes hard to keep track of the number of people who’ve died. Do we have a group memorial for everyone or do we have just one for Elisapie, because it’s fresh, and then figure out how to honour the others?
“These are bizarre conversations to be having. How do we cope with this massive and unending string of deaths? I’m at a loss.”
Westmount Mayor Christina Smith and Plante are supposed to meet about a permanent location for overnight services in west downtown. Neither were immediately available for comment.
Nakuset sent a letter to the mayors, informing them of Elisapie’s death and calling on the city to fast-track permits to keep the tent going until they can work out a long-term solution.
In the meantime, Chapman says Elisapie’s death is further proof that we’re failing our most vulnerable residents.
“I know that she’d been playing cat and mouse with metro security,” Chapman said. “When she’d get caught, she’d be pushed out into the street. So sometimes she hid out. This time, it was the end of her.
“It’s tragic. But I can’t … those words feel empty right now.”