Amid a brisk afternoon at Cabot Square, flower arrangements and tearful eyes filled the outdoor space.
There were upwards of 100 people assembled to honour the life of 61-year-old Elisapee Pootoogook on Monday, November 22.
“She was a real personality and, as every person here can see today, she was so loved by everyone who met her,” said David Chapman, executive director of Resilience Montreal.
“Elisapee had all these beautiful quirks that just touched so many people. She had a real character to her too.”
Throughout the nearly seven years Chapman knew Pootoogook, he had helped the Inuk woman relocate to the north approximately five times.
Like many in Northern Inuit communities, Pootoogook frequently had to travel from her home in Salluit, Nunavik, in order to access medical treatment in Montreal.
Early in the morning of November 13, Pootoogook’s body was discovered in the construction site of a luxury condo complex across from Cabot Square.
“It’s ironic to stand here and have these buildings erected around us,” said Makivik’s corporate secretary Rita Novalinga, as she looked up at the towering glass buildings. “A few years ago, there was a children’s hospital here – now you have like four condominiums coming up and (yet) we have somebody perish from coldness. That’s unacceptable.”
Novalinga and board member Joseph Snowball were in attendance as representatives of the corporation mandated to protect the rights and interests of the Inuit of Nunavik.
“How come we don’t have the same support as others? We ask, and we ask, but we have to wait a year, sometimes two years just for help that doesn’t come,” said Snowball. “It’s time for the mayor to do something – to work with us, ask us what we need and ask how we can work together. Let her and the governments listen to what we want.”
In an email to The Eastern Door, a spokesperson for the city of Montreal said it continues to work with the health network responsible for supporting emergency shelter services.
“As part of the winter measures, the City of Montreal provides logistical support, including assistance in finding space and setting up facilities,” reads the email.
A slew of Onkwehón:we community members, many of them Inuk, took turns passing the microphone and sharing words in Inuktitut.
Within each song, bible passage and anecdote, memories of Pootoogook made hearts grow fonder.
“She would do such eccentric things,”recounted Chapman. “One time, when she was panhandling in the metro, she asked to use my phone. When I handed it to her, she dialed a number, got her husband on the phone and asked to talk to her grandkids.
Then she just started singing them a lullaby right there in the middle of the metro! It was a really touching moment to see.”
A few metres away from where attendees had gathered stood the Raphäel “Napa” André memorial tent – a reminder of not only the winter’s ruthlessness, but also of the persisting struggle faced by the city’s Indigenous unhoused community.
“There’s a testimony next to us of another death – a preventable death that shocked the Innu Nation last winter,” said Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador chief Ghislain Picard. “It was said in this case too that cold shouldn’t be killing our people, but that’s a tragic conclusion that we have to come to again.”
The white tent named after the late 51-year-old Innu man whose death sparked cries for action last winter is scheduled to come down at the end of March.
On the night Pootoogook passed, she had been repeatedly chased out of the nearby metro station where she was seeking warm refuge. Meanwhile, the temporary tent had reached its typical full capacity of 15 clients.
“People ask why Elisapee wasn’t in the tent. Well it’s precisely because there is limited space and especially in contrast to the need in the area,” explained the Resilience director.
With the temporary shelter initiative being led by the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal, alongside support from the Innu and Mohawk Nations, Chapman expressed a sentiment of discouragement in view of persisting “dragging of the heels” from governments at all levels.
“What we need right away are warm spaces like this tent scattered across the city of Montreal so that people under the influence can have shelter,” he said. “Without such resources, there will be more deaths and we will have more memorials like this.”
As he pressed for immediate short-term solutions, Chapman also emphasized the urgent need to find a building and establish a permanent shelter for unhoused individuals under the influence.
According to the city, the work continues to find a sustainable alternative to the tent.
“The City of Montreal is actively seeking available indoor sites to host homelessness projects as part of the 2021-2022 winter measures led by the CIUSSS du Centre-Sud-de-l’île-de-Montréal,” wrote spokesperson Guillaume Rivest. “For the time being, scenarios are still being studied to accommodate these resources.”
The call for a permanent shelter was amplified by those who also pleaded for more understanding and kindness.
“Traditionally, no one is left behind,” said Inuk youth Mariam Imak. “You always bring people in – so we have to come together and be here for one another.”
As Imak and Saali Kuata played a unifying heartbeat drumming song, the pair sought to bring strength to the grieving community.
When reminding attendees of the missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and Two-Spirit people crisis, in which colonial state violence prevails, Kuata requested a moment of reflection.
“I want you to be painfully aware, to use your ears and listen. Because when we hold this moment of silence, the city will not stop for our grief,” said Kuata. “The city will not stop at our deaths. The city will not stop from the deep sadness that is being held every day in our hearts as we live.”
Laurence Brisson Dubreuil, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter