Matthias poked at the ground with his cane, inching out of the dark city toward something safe.

He’s learned to navigate Val-d’Or without the use of his eyesight. Of course, it helps that the vehicles here are loud; diesel trucks rattle up and down the main drag on 3rd Ave., their tires crackling against the dusty pavement as they whoosh by.

Experience matters too. Matthias has walked these corners for so long he can literally do it blind. The park on Sullivan Rd. is about 150 paces from his home. Although, with his ailing hip, he won’t venture much farther without a guide.

What he can’t always account for, however, are the invisible obstacles. A patch of black ice on the sidewalk or a pothole that could snap his ankle. So he sweeps and taps at the ground until rough concrete gives way to something glassy or wet.

“Almost missed that one!” said Matthias, limping along the road. “I’m going to break my hip one of these days. Again.”

Just then he heard a door open.

Someone called his name, beckoning him to come inside where a fresh pair of pajamas, a warm shower and a bowl of soup waited for him.

That night, like every other night, Matthias would sleep on a cot in a room full of men who also live on the streets of Quebec’s gold-mining capital. Here, in the closest place he has to a home, the elderly Anishinaabe man is on the front lines of a public health crisis.

There are only 32,000 people living in Val-d’Or, but nearly 500 of them spent the night in a homeless shelter last year. That number is nearly twice what it was the year before. And with a global pandemic limiting capacity at La Piaule — Val-d’Or’s only homeless shelter — public health officials had to open more beds in a church basement across the city.

I came here to learn more about the people fighting to get off the streets and those who choose to be a part of their struggle. This is the first in a two-part series about life, death and hope on the streets of Val-d’Or.

Matthias walking the streets of Val-d’Or
Christopher Curtis

78 stitches and a cracked skull

“The streets will swallow you up if you’re not careful.”

Jeremiah shook his head as he guided Matthias down a slippery laneway.

“I got 78 stitches on these streets, bro,” says Jeremiah, his hand firmly gripped around Matthias’ forearm. “I got a cracked skull out here, I’ve had my nose broken a bunch of times.… Just over there these two dudes jumped me.”

He pointed to the middle of the laneway behind Motel Continental on 3rd Ave. Jeremiah’s face corroborates at least some of these tales. The bridge of his nose is scarred and bent. Scars run across his brow and he has a fresh scab above his left eye.

Still, Jeremiah cuts a handsome figure. And though he may talk a good game, Matthias brings out the best in him.

He has that effect on people.

“He’s like a grandfather to me,” said Jeremiah.

Just like two-thirds of Val-d’Or’s homeless population, Jeremiah and Matthias are Indigenous. Jeremiah’s dad and grandfather were residential school survivors, snatched from their parents’ arms and forced to leave James Bay Cree territory two generations ago.

The story of so many Indigenous people who wind up out here is one of forced displacement. Matthias was born in a wood cabin near Rapid Lake, a 160-km ride south of Val-d’Or through the bush.

He grew up without running water or electricity, cutting holes in the creek during winter so he could haul pails of water for his mother. They lived off the land, harvesting pelts and meat from the forest just as their ancestors had for thousands of years.

But mining exploration and forestry have all but depleted the traplines that sustained his family for hundreds of years. He got work at a mink farm in upstate New York, skinning the animal alongside other Indigenous hunters.

“It was mostly Puerto Ricans and Indians,” he said. “Us, we knew how to hunt, how to field dress an animal. It wasn’t the best work, it wasn’t the worst either. They shut it down in the ’90s and we came back north.”

Jeremiah’s journey south from James Bay was also involuntary. His legacy is one of cultural genocide. His father and grandfather survived residential school but not without scars. They were called savages by the people entrusted to care for them, and the priests who ran their classes used a closed fist to instill order and prevent children from speaking Cree.

It did not prepare them for fatherhood.

“My dad wouldn’t talk about it much. You could tell it was devastating to him though,” said Jeremiah. “He would only open up after a few Colt 45s. It’s something you try to forget but it doesn’t let you. Nightmares, flashbacks, it will always be a part of you. Like it lives inside you.”

It wasn’t just a spell of bad luck that pushed Jeremiah onto the streets. Sure, he tore apart his knee while working as a line cutter in the forest. But the pull to street life was deeper than that.

Both his parents were homeless for a time. His mother still is. She sat near us in the alley that night while Jeremiah spoke to me.

“With my dad, when times were tough, I would take care of him, he’d take care of me and on and on,” he said. “My mom and I, we look out for each other now. It won’t always be this way. We’ll get it together but right now it’s just hard.”

He says he’ll go back to the land of his ancestors one day, and if there’s anything left of his ancestral traplines, he’ll work those.

“There has to be a better tomorrow. If you can’t hope for that, you might as well give up and die.”

The dinner line at the La Piaule shelter in Val-d’Or
Christopher Curtis

A ‘good devil’

A kind of serenity had settled over La Piaule.

With dinner service behind them, workers at the homeless shelter took a moment to sit back and play a few hands of Skip-Bo with clients in the dining room. Over to the side, a bull-shouldered man in a flannel coat watched Star Trek Enterprise on TV.

Sonny cackled and slapped down his cards, winning the game.

“You’re full of shit,” said François, a volunteer at La Piaule. “Let’s do one more.”

Sonny has a semi-permanent spot in the shelter but he’s been looking for an apartment lately. Of course, it’s hard to get anything reasonable in a mining town where the price of gold is $2,165 an ounce and vacancy rates peak at 1 per cent.

Even with COVID-19 shutting down tourism in the region, motels on 3rd Ave. draw a steady crowd of drillers and heavy machinery mechanics from across the Ontario border. Like any frontier town carved into the wilderness, renting to transient workers is big business in Val-d’Or: boarding houses and laundromats dot the downtown core and there’s still a busted-out neon sign advertising a bar and rooms for rent at Le Manoir, which shut down before the pandemic.

Sonny has two strikes against him; he lives on a meagre income and he’s Indigenous. A dozen sources I spoke to say it’s not unheard of for landlords to explicitly say they won’t rent to Anishinaabe tenants — even though that’s illegal.

“It’s hard to get work and save money when you’re waiting on a kidney transplant and you’re missing one of these,” he said, flashing his amputated middle finger. “I do what I can around here and I’ve got it okay. Some people, they were born with a bottle in their hands. Some kids inherit money, some inherit trauma and a drinking problem.

“My curse is diabetes. Not exactly the same, but not exactly a picnic either.”

Just across the room, the crew of the Star Trek Enterprise were holed up in a space bunker, blasting it out with aliens as the episode reached its climax. Paul turned away from the television and walked over to the card game.

“He’s a good devil, this one, wouldn’t wanna see him go right away,” said Paul, a volunteer who used to be homeless. “Nobody deserves to be out there and freeze and die. And that’s not a figure of speech, it’s something that happens, people dying on a snowbank in Val-d’Or. Nobody deserves that.

“If his curse is diabetes, mine is anger. And pain.”

Paul was a foreman on a lumberjack team, making honest wages to clear brush and teach younger workers how to ply their trade. That all changed when a tree fell on him shortly after his 27th birthday.

“The doctors just gave me pain pills and told me I’d get better,” said Paul. “But the pain didn’t go away. So I drank, I shot drugs into my arm and I got caught up in this cycle of violence and revenge.
“For the longest time, my life was work and addiction. It took years for me to hit bottom and get help. It was around then that I found out I was sick.”

Paul has fibromyalgia — a neurological disorder characterized by bouts of chronic pain. He manages to get by without drinking but he needs to stay busy. He helps out around the shelter and does odd jobs for the residents up near the shelter on Sullivan Rd.

“I clear driveways, I do little things here and there but I know when to stop, I know when my body needs a rest,” said Paul. “A lot of people out here haven’t bottomed out yet. They think they have, maybe they’ll even go to treatment. But they won’t get clean until they’ve hit their bottom like I did.”

‘Who doesn’t love a fresh pair of PJs out of the dryer?’

Catherine Lemay barely broke eye contact with me while reaching for the safe injection kit. She opened the magnetically locked door just enough to slide her arm through and hand off the cellophane-wrapped syringe.

“Thank you,” someone whispered through the door.

“There’s no judgement here,” said Lemay, who has worked at La Piaule’s front desk for nearly five years. “We get people in all their states. It used to be mostly speed and amphetamines but heroin is starting to become less and less rare.

“I guess it’s a pain thing. This is a hard place. Lots of people get hurt on the job or out in the bush and they get a prescription for pain meds and then it devolves. I’m not an expert or anything, so take that for what it’s worth.”

Catherine Lemay
A worker at the La Piaule shelter in Val-d’Or
Christopher Curtis

It would be easy to dwell on the nasty parts of working at La Piaule.

“I’ve seen people come in here with stab wounds. We’ve had to call the cops on some of the more agitated clients. It can be a lot to handle,” said Lemay. “Last week, one of our clients died. We don’t know exactly what [from] but he wasn’t old. In his 40s. I heard he may have been beaten real bad but that’s just a rumour.

“If you get hung up on that stuff, you’re not gonna last long here. People make it out. Not all of them, mind you, but people make it out. And for the ones who haven’t made it out, you just try to be there and be ready for when it’ll be their time.”

Lemay guided me through the building, walking past walls patched up with spackle and empty rooms with cots on the floor. Down a flight of stairs, we heard a washer and dryer humming.

“We keep a clean house, especially in the middle of a pandemic,” Lemay says. “Everything has to go smoothly — sign-in, showers, fresh laundry, you want to do whatever you can to create some kind of structure, some kind of routine.

“There are no rules out there but we need them in here. And who doesn’t love a clean pair of PJs right out of the dryer?”

People came by around 8 p.m to sign in for a spot in the dorm and venture back outside for another 90 minutes. Soon the shower would be running and residents signing in two at a time before taking their overnight kit.

Matthias limped into the building and caught his breath. One of the workers grabbed his coat and bag for him, locking it for safekeeping overnight. She doesn’t speak English and his French isn’t great, but they have their own shorthand.

“Thank you, young lady,” he said.

De rien, mon cher.

A young man called Bobby peeked his head out of the washroom, allowing a cloud of warm mist to fog up the hallway.

“I forgot my towel,” he said, turning around to reveal a bare bottom.

A male volunteer rushed over to help cover him up. The room erupted into laughter.

“No two days are the same here,” said Lemay. “Some people can’t handle that, but I quite enjoy the variety.”

Soon Matthias would crawl into bed and nod off.

His hands shake, he can’t see more than a few feet in front of him and his hip aches from the metal screws that hold it in place. And yet, he sports a near-constant smile.

“I have projects, I have hopes and dreams. My son Victor is going to get married when this is all done, this COVID stuff,” he said. “And I’ll be there with my harmonica, playing songs and singing and dancing. And we’ll be together again.

“The last time I saw my granddaughter, it was November. We had our Christmas early. I miss her. I want to get a small van for Victor so we can visit our family on the reserve. I want a better life for the kids.

“That’s why I’m hopeful.”

Matthias pulled himself to his feet and shuffled toward the shower, surviving another night so he can live again one day.

Matthias (right) with a friend
Christopher Curtis