Last week, we were shocked to learn of the passing of Elisapee Pootoogook, an Inuit elder found lifeless in a downtown construction site, on the site of the former Montreal Children’s Hospital. This horrible news comes less than a year after the tragic death of Raphaël André, an Innu-Naskapi man who literally froze to death in a public washroom in Montreal. The deaths of Elisapee Pootoogook and Raphaël André are tragedies that are our collective responsibility.
As caregivers who live and work in the Tiohtà: ke (Montreal) region, we understand that safe and dignified living spaces are essential to health and well-being. We also know the importance of the structural determinants of health, which generate inequalities, as unjust as they are avoidable, affecting the most marginalized. The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated these injustices, especially for people who are deprived of access to housing, the number of which has doubled in Montreal in the past year.
Members of Indigenous communities are severely affected by precariousness and the lack of housing, representing 20% of homeless people in Montreal, the majority of whom are Inuit1. This reality is the consequence of structural inequalities: cost of living and food insecurity in the northern territories, lack of jobs and access to housing, collapse of traditional economies, deliberate neglect of successive governments in terms of social and health resources in the region. Nunavik, testifying to a medical colonialism rooted in a systemic anti-Indigenous racism. Upstream, the colonial policies which forced the sedentarization of Inuit communities, depriving them of access to fishing and hunting, distorting their relationship to the land and their thousand-year-old culture and inflicting on them a legacy of intergenerational trauma, represent the root causes that make many Inuit internal refugees, forced to live in extreme marginalization in the city.
Like Elisapee Pootoogook, many Inuit are sent to Montreal to receive health care… without being able to return to their communities.
The height of a cruel irony, Elisapee Pootoogook died on the site of the former Montreal Children’s Hospital, a site that was to include social housing, but which will become a luxury condo tower. Two years after the report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (ENFFADA), her name has been added to the long list of Indigenous women victims of institutional violence.
As winter is upon us, many calls from Indigenous organizations, including the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal and Résilience, have expressed their difficulties in providing sufficient basic services, such as a rest area, a meal. warm and clothes. The organization is sorely lacking in resources to continue administering the Espace Raphaël André commemorative tent.
A year ago, the Plante administration presented its “strategy for reconciliation with indigenous peoples”, which includes “supporting the urban indigenous community” and “improving the sense of security of indigenous people in Montreal”2. We call on the City of Montreal to take immediate and concrete actions, in collaboration with Indigenous communities and organizations fighting against homelessness.
As a priority, these organizations are calling for permanent spaces to accommodate those who have nowhere else to go.
Upstream and long-term solutions are also necessary, and require the collaboration of the various levels of government, in particular in terms of access to decent and affordable housing, to culturally safe care (in particular through the adoption of the Joyce Principle ), and ultimately to self-determination for Indigenous Nations. These actions are urgent if we want to live in a just and dignified society. Nothing justifies that Elisapee Pootoogook is no longer with us; we cannot accept that more lives are lost.
* The Soignons la justice sociale collective is a group of caregivers involved in the fight for equity and justice in health.
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