Miyoskamin is a Cree word that means “the heart of innovation,” “groundbreaking,” or “breaking the mold.”
“I just thought that what we’re doing is exactly this,” said executive director of the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal (NWSM), Nakuset, who is Cree.
In August, Maison Miyoskamin, a second-stage housing project that will also provide comprehensive, holistic supports, will open its doors to Indigenous women and their families in Tiohtià:ke. The facility will include 23 units, ranging from one-bedroom apartments to three-bedroom apartments, with 11 of the units for single women and 12 for families. Residents will have access to a common room, a terrasse, and a community kitchen and will live in community with one another.
Because the project is funded through a provincial rent-subsidy program, residents will not have to spend more than 25 percent of their income on rent. They will also have to meet certain criteria: eligibility for the rent subsidy program and enrolment in some kind of vocational, academic, or professional training.
“The goal is really to equip them while they’re there with enough support, enough resources to better their situation for themselves and for their families,” said Kahnawa’kehró:non Brooke Wahsontiiostha Deer, who is helming Maison Miyoskamin as its director.
At the end of 2022, Deer left her role at Kahnawake Collective Impact (KCI) because she couldn’t pass up the opportunity to direct this project.
“I was really interested in working on a project that involves so many different things like infrastructure, housing, the community social pediatrics clinic that’s inside the building,” said Deer.
Maison Miyoskamin will also be home to a social pediatric clinic which will operate on a holistic model of care that includes access to a family lawyer, intergenerational trauma counsellors, and empowerment workers. NWSM has even applied to Jordan’s Principle to increase access to speech therapy for prospective clinic patients.
The clinic will be named after the Inuktitut word for butterfly, “saralikitaaq,” denoting the transformational support that the clinic will provide, and it’s one of over 40 clinics funded by the Dr. Julien Foundation, a Quebec-based organization that works to “deliver social pediatrics services in as many vulnerable communities as possible,” according to their website.
“The social pediatric clinic is going to be for all Indigenous Montreal. So anyone in the city who’s having a hard time can call us, and we will find the experts and evaluate and then sit down with the experts and help you with whatever it is,” she continued.
NWSM has worked with Batir son quartier, an organization that “coordinates the realization of community or social real-estate projects,” to acquire the building at 757 Rue des Seigneurs, which was once a bathhouse, in the Southwest borough of Montreal.
According to Nakuset, the building’s heritage designation has made renovations difficult and time-consuming as they’ve had to work with the architects to preserve the building’s facade while doing substantive work on the interior, which was left derelict for decades. Miyoskamin was originally supposed to open last fall but was pushed back because of construction delays.
The site was chosen for its proximity to the downtown core, with hospitals and schools nearby, allowing for navigable transportation across the city. This was especially important, Nakuset said, as many of the families Miyoskamin will be home to are grappling with youth protection cases – instances of the state threatening to take or taking children from their parents, which happens to Indigenous families at disproportionate rates.
“It’s tailor-made to the issues that I’ve seen in my 20-plus years working at the NWSM. Nothing like this exists,” said Nakuset.
“It’s heartbreaking to see what (Indigenous) women go through on a daily basis. Women that lose their children, I have seen too many women spiral down and die, drink themselves to death.… I’ve seen women at the shelter that are nine months pregnant, ready to give birth, and have no joy because they know that this child will be taken away at birth,” said Nakuset.
Nakuset has witnessed the systemic racism of Quebec’s health care, social services, and youth protection systems throughout her career, all of which have motivated her to take action.
“The reason why we have a social pediatric clinic is when you think about what happened to Joyce Echaquan, people are still not comfortable going to a doctor. When you think about birth alerts, women are afraid to give birth,” said Nakuset, noting the province’s failure to implement recommendations from the Viens Commission.
“We are working so hard to reverse these really damaging policies that were inflicted on us,” said Nakuset.
For Nakuset and her team at NWSM, the road to Maison Miyoskamin has been long and arduous, involving years of coordinating with Miyoskamin’s steering collective to fundraise, write grants, and jump through a myriad bureaucratic hoops. Now, Miyoskamin has funding from all levels of government and will benefit from over $75,000 raised through community efforts.
“I think that it is a first, but we can also be the example that other people look at and are like, ‘Oh, how did they do that? We can do that,’ because absolutely anyone can do this. Yes, it takes a long time. It’s taken 10-plus years; we didn’t just give up,” said Nakuset.