By Katherine Lalancette
Perched up high on his pedestal, John Cabot reaches out in the distance, gazing at the New World before him. The 15th century explorer, said to be the first European to discover North America, stands proudly, immortalized in bronze, in the center of the square named in his honour, right next to the Atwater Metro station.
Sitting at Cabot’s feet on this chilly afternoon, is a group of men holding paper bags, taking sips from the bottles of beer inside them, trying to keep warm as they watch the commuters go by. Just as the statue they surround, they too are symbols in this park, only not of the glorious Age of Discovery, but of homelessness and addiction among urban Aboriginals.
Victor Perryn is one of the men in the park today. He has been homeless on and off for much of his life. He admits he used to sniff a lot of cocaine, back when he sold it in his early twenties. But after four years in the Bordeaux prison for drug trafficking and assaulting a police officer (“they’re always going to make something up,” he says of the latter conviction), he slowed down and insists his drug use is now limited to alcohol and marijuana.
Looking around him at the other Aboriginals in the square, Perryn pauses and says “Why they come here (to Montreal), I don’t know. They should stay home. You can see the wear and tear on them, on their faces.”
Unlike many Natives who come to the city, Perryn did not come here by choice. At the age of 4, the now 39-year-old Ojibway was taken from the Peguis reserve, the largest First Nation community in Manitoba, and placed in a white Montreal family.
This was a common practice in Canada in the 1960s and 70s. Child welfare agencies were quick to pluck Native children from their parents and arrange for them to be adopted by white, middle-class families, often far from any Aboriginal community.
The result was a cultural identity crisis that led many of the children to turn to drugs, alcohol and crime when they reached their teens. That’s what happened to Michel Chrétien, who was adopted as a toddler from an Inuvik orphanage and experienced a privileged upbringing with Québécois parents who, by all accounts, did everything in their power to ensure the success of the adoption. He grappled with substance abuse for many years and spent most of his young adult life shuffling in and out of prison for aussault convictions.
His troubles caused much embarrasement to his parents, Jean and Aline, especially to his father who was minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development at the time of the adotion and later became Prime Minister. Yes, that Jean Chrétien.
Perryn wasn’t so lucky. His parents, teachers from Châteauguay, allegedly abused and neglected him.
“I spent nine months in that hospital there when I was 10 (years old) for malnutrition,” Perryn says, pointing to the Montreal Children’s Hospital across the park. “After that, I went to foster homes, 17 foster homes in all.”
These days, Perryn watches the days go by in Cabot Square, drinking with his friends. A few weeks ago, he says a man attacked him in this park, causing him to slip on some ice and fracture his arm. He says the incident happened in broad daylight, with people all around. No one did anything to help.
But Perryn came back to Cabot square nonetheless. “Where else am I going to go?” he asks. Until recently, he also spent a lot of time at Bar Diana, a nearby establishment frequented by many Native and Inuit people in the area, but he is now barred.
“I accidentally broke a beer tap, it was by accident,” says Perryn. “That’s a crazy place, anyway. Stabbings, lots of drugs. Too much booze…it gets violent.”
Loly Saunders is a new addition to the Bar Diana circle. Sitting at a table with two other Cree women, the 27-year-old is drinking a pint of beer. By the looks of it, this isn’t her first of the night.
Three weeks ago, Saunders was rushed by helicopter from her home in Nunavik, in northern Quebec, to the Montreal General Hospital for emergency surgery following complications from the delivery of her second daughter, Mina. Since then, Saunders has been staying in a local apartment building, rumoured to be a crack house, with several other Native people she met in the city.
“It’s been fun,” says a heavily intoxicated Saunders. “I met friends. I met them in that building where I stay. You can stay there whenever you’re here. I met her (pointing to her new friend Rhonda, originally from Fort George in James Bay) in that building, doing uppers. She showed me around, you know? It’s like my first time being in the real world or something.”
When asked what’s not the real world for her, Saunders responds “my girls, having kids, living up North.”
It seems the carefree nightlife the city offers is a welcomed relief to single-motherhood for Saunders. As the conversation goes on, she ponders staying for another month.
She trails on, slurring her words as she tries to explain why she likes it so much here. But she is interrupted by a screaming match between the bartender and another patron.
“The next time you’re out,” yells the French-Canadian bartender, waving her hand towards the door. “You want to do sex, you go to the hotel or in the street, but not in the bar.”
“I’m sorry, madam,” the woman, a prostitute according to Saunders, answers in a drunken drawl, as she sits on top of a man at a table near the back, her shirt pulled up above her bra.
The Bar Diana scene provides a glimpse of the hardships Native people often face when they leave their reserves to move to the big city. And with the exodus becoming greater every year, it seems these problems are likely to grow in tandem.
In Janurary 2008, data from the 2006 Statistics Canada census revealed that for the first time in history, the majority of Native people, 54 per cent to be exact, live in urban areas, a 50 per cent jump from 1996. In Montreal, 17, 865 people identify themselves as Aboriginal, although according to most experts, the real figures are much higher because of the large number of homeless Native people.
Brandon Perrault, an animator at the Montreal Native Center, believes there are around 100,000 First Nation people living in the city, including Inuit and Métis. Dr. Marie-Pierre Bousquet, an anthropology professor at the Université de Montréal who has studied Montreal’s urban Aboriginal community agrees with this estimate.
In her article “Peuples invisibles” (Invisible peoples), Bousquet wrote about the lack of awareness Quebecers have of the Native community.
“Montrealers barely know there even are Aboriginals living in their city, much less that a lot of them are struggling with homelessness and addiction,” says Bousquet.
According to Hubert Pineault, one of Bousquet’s students, who is currently working on a study about Aboriginal homelessness with one of his other professors, the reasons so many Natives end up living on the street are culturally based.
“Aboriginals often have a difficult time adapting to the ethics of ‘white’ work,” he explains. “That environment, only oriented towards production and impersonal relations, isn’t compatible with their culture, which is based on family and a more laid back lifestyle. Also, racism is very present, which can make finding a job or a place to live harder.”
However, as Bousquet points out, because these problems garner so little visibility, there are very few resources available and the institutions in place are overwhelmed.
The Project Autochtone du Québec (the Quebec Aboriginal project), Montreal’s only Native homeless shelter, only offers 15 beds and patrons can only stay for a maximum of three nights a week.
Perrault, who experienced homelessness when he first left the Garden River First Nation reserve, near Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. to pursue art, has slept at the PAQ in the past. The 32-year-old praises its sense of community, a central part of the Aboriginal culture, and notes that most Natives don’t feel comfortable staying in the city’s other shelters.
Although the Friendship Center, which has been open for nearly 34 years, is exclusively a day center, it works hard to provide help to local homeless Natives. It serves free breakfast and lunch, and gives out clothing and blankets. Its workers and volunteers also host beading and drumming sessions, and healing circles, where people are invited to sit together and talk freely about the issues they are facing.
“This is a place where people can come in and relax,” says Perrault. “It’s a chance for them to spend a few hours off the streets everyday.”
On this Thursday afternoon, the center’s communal room is filled with men and women eating a lunch of salad and pea soup as they wait for their name to be called by the nurse who comes in once a week. A man sits in front of one of the computers, staring at the screen as he contemplates his next move in his game of solitaire. A group of people lounge on the couches, watching the news on the wide-screen television, and a woman talks to her daughter on one of the phones.
“I see in the future that probably more Native people will be coming to urban areas, because there’s nothing on the reserves,” Perrault predicts. “A lot of our reserves, where they were placed by the government a long time ago, are in places where there can’t be that much economic development. They’re isolated.”
“If you go to some places like Barrier Lake in Quebec and other reserves all over Canada, you’d think you were in a Third World country,” Perrault goes on to say. “You wouldn’t believe it. They have no running water, they have skin problems, digestive problems. It’s absolutely horrible.”
In the future, Perrault would like to see the center offer educational programs and job training to help urban Aboriginals break the cycles of homelessness and addiction. He also hopes to see a change in attitudes toward Native people, something he considers key in resolving the social problems afflicting his people.
“I’m not one to be racist against white people,” explains Perrault. “But Canadians and Quebecers need to open their eyes and realize that we’re people too, and that for years the government has put us on the bottom shelf. They need to realize that my grandfather, his grandfather and his grandfather all lived on Turtle Island. That’s what we call it (North America). This is our traditional land.”
It is this land John Cabot stepped foot on in 1497, planting an English flag on a continent Aboriginals had called home for tens of thousands of years. On this freezing night, three of their descendants lie on the floor of the Atwater metro station, sleeping beneath the heating vent as the close-by Cabot statue steadily looks upon them.