Born again in Milton-Parc
You might say the Montreal neighbourhood is a microcosm for everything that's wrong with Canada. Or maybe it's a place to redeem the soul of our city.
“It’s a good place for second chances.”
The words came humming out of Pierre Parent like a mantra.
As we stood in the heart of Milton-Parc, it was unclear if he was telling me about redemption or willing it into existence. Either way, it takes a special kind of optimism to look at the downtown neighbourhood and have any semblance of hope.
This is the area where they found Raphael André frozen to death in a portable toilet last winter. André was forced to spend the night outside because an outbreak of COVID-19 had shut down the emergency shelter that housed him.
You could argue that the corner of Parc Avenue and Milton Street is a microcosm of what’s broken in this country. Inuit sleep on the sidewalk in shifts, leaning against a steel fence that was erected to keep them off a vacant lot.
Street workers, meanwhile, are worn down by the sheer volume of new faces they see every week, the latest casualties in an epidemic of poverty that’s taken hold of Montreal since coronavirus arrived here last year. And there’s growing pressure from business owners and citizens groups for police to “do something” about the unhoused at this corner of the neighbourhood called Milton-Parc.
To a pessimist, the situation might seem beyond hope. But Parent knows a great deal about second chances. He’s making good on his.
“My first night in prison, I was about to take my life,” said Parent, who hails from the James Bay Cree territory. “When you walk across that cell block and the door shuts behind you, it’s a lot to take in. All you can hear is the neon lights buzzing and you start to wonder if you even deserve to be alive anymore.
“But that’s when I had that moment of grace, that chance to give myself up to a higher power and get sober. The most important change of my life came to me behind bars. I was taken in by Indigenous elders and they put me on the right path.
“I walk with purpose now.”
That’s what the people on Parent’s beat see when they come across him every day.
They don’t see a convicted killer. They don’t see a man who lost everything to a decades long coke addiction. They see Pierre, someone who’s fighting to help get them back on their feet. Someone willing to give them a second chance.
Just the mention of Kitty Kakkinerk brought tears streaming down Ella’s cheeks.
“She was my cousin,” Ella says. “I miss her every day. It was one year ago, almost exactly one year ago, that she was taken from us.”
Kakkinerk was running from an abusive boyfriend one night last summer when, in a moment of panic, she turned onto Parc Avenue without looking. Sources close to her describe the scene in chilling detail: the sound of tires screeching against the pavement, the screams of witnesses, and the way their shock seemed to hang in the suffocating August night.
I did a double take when I heard the news.
I’d met Kitty about 18 months before she died. Her brother Lucassie had gone missing and she needed help finding him. When you cover homelessness for a city paper, you almost become numb to the daily horrors of life in the margins. But there was something about Kitty’s sincerity that pierced through my outer crust of cynicism.
“That’s him,” she said, pointing to a photograph of Lucassie and two friends. “Please, please help me find him. I can’t live without him.”
The last he was seen, Lucassie had wrapped himself in blankets and fallen asleep in a laneway off Parc Avenue. On the streets, people often sleep in pairs to avoid being robbed or preyed upon. When Lucassie’s mate woke up that cold February night, he couldn’t find him. His blankets were still there, his school bag too but no Lucassie.
It was unlike him not to check in, not to at least give some sign that things were okay. But the silence went on for days and Kitty was scared. She scoured the neighbourhood with a photograph of her brother in hand, begging strangers to take a second look, imploring anyone to share the photo on social media and get the word out.
When we met, through a contact at a nearby shelter, Kitty had been up for over 24 hours. Her eyes were swollen and red from crying. I called a contact in the local police, rushed to put out a story and shared the photo as widely as I could.
Within a day, Lucassie came wandering back to Milton-Parc, unaware of the panic he’d caused. Kitty cried tears of joy that day in February. That was Kitty: a woman with a big heart and a hug that felt like home. Every now and again I’d run into her. She always had a joke or a smile to spare.
I wish this is where the story ended.
Kitty, Lucassie and their sister Charlotte all came to Montreal from Quaqtaq, a fishing village in the fjords of Ungava Bay.
They are among the 2,000 Inuit from Nunavik living in Montreal. Most come down to attend college, to work, to start a new life or for complex medical treatment not available in one of the two Nunavik villages that have hospitals. There are Inuit pilots who live in the south and nurses in training who will likely head back up to their communities to pitch in. Hundreds of students attend CEGEP or university in the city. There are more students enrolled in post-secondary education now than at any point in Nunavik’s history.
Some, like singers Elisapie Isaac from Salluit or Beatrice Deer from Qaqtaq, came to Montreal then achieved renown across the country. Isaac’s music had landed her on one of Quebec’s most-watched talk shows, Tout le Monde en Parle. Deer made waves a few years back when she blended Inuit throat singing with indie music — she jokes that she invented a musical genre called ‘Inuindie.’
There are many reasons to head south. But of all the factors that bring people here, the lack of access to affordable housing in northern communities is probably the strongest incentive.
Over 12,000 people live in the 14 Inuit villages that dot Quebec’s northern coast, where a rapidly growing population has exhausted what little housing stock exists in the region. Two sources at the Inuit-owned Makivik corporation estimate there would need to be between 500 and 800 new houses built to alleviate the crisis.
“As it stands, you have three generations of a family under one roof, no privacy, no intimacy and a constant sense of tension because you’re always in someone else’s space,” said one source, who was not authorized to speak to the media. “People will come to the city just to get away from that, just for a break from all that stress. But it’s not always so welcoming once you get down here.”
This may be why Kitty, Lucassie and Charlotte ended up here, where you could say the fenced-off parking lot was once the closest they had to a home in the city.
“The culture shock is overwhelming. Everything is different down here. It hits you hard. The hustle and bustle, the noise, it makes you homesick like you couldn’t even imagine. I miss the people, the land, the animals, I miss how fresh each breath feels up there.”
—Saila Noah, artist.
The struggle with the transition south is not always easy.Among the Inuit who fall on hard times, Milton-Parc has become a preferred destination. For years, Saint Michael’s Mission — just a few blocks southwest of Milton Street — was a reliable source of warm food and friendly conversation.
George Greene, who used to run the mission, would organize jam sessions with local homeless folk. It wasn’t unusual to walk in the shelter and hear a three-piece band playing as the Greene buzzed around them in an oversized tweed jacket.
“Isn’t this amazing, Chris?” he’d yell, over the sound of electric guitar. “How’s your cat doing?”
Greene was a tireless advocate for the unhoused of Milton-Parc. He retired around the time the Open Door day centre opened its doors in a church basement north of Milton Street. The arrival of this new, culturally sensitive shelter that would work closely with Makivik, the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal and Projet Autochtones du Québec, wasn’t welcome news for some in the neighbourgood.
In fact, it sparked a backlash from residents and shop owners. They feared an increase in unhoused people living among them.
“The tension was immediate and unsettling,” said one resident, who did not want to be named for fear of being ostracized by his neighbours. “People who used to talk a good game about helping the poor were starting to say some pretty outrageous things about Inuit. It brought out the best in some of us, but it also awoke something dark in our neighbours as well.”
A few people protested the arrival of a new shelter at city council meetings, others called the police constantly, and some took even bolder steps. The owner of a vacant lot at the corner of Milton Street and Parc Avenue erected a steel fence to prevent homeless from camping out on his property. It was around that time, when the dozen or so people who slept in the lot were pushed onto the sidewalk where friends of Kitty watched her breathe her last breath.
“What people have to realize is that we’re seeing entire families out on the street together,” said Nathalie Goulet, the Montreal city councillor in charge of diversity and inclusion. “This is a community. So when there’s a tragedy, it strikes at the heart of a community. But you can’t look at this as a tragedy or something unavoidable. It’s a public health crisis and we can solve it with enough resources. We need to find a solution, a way to balance the needs of the merchants and residents with the needs of the people out on the street.
“When you reach out to the owner of the lot and you ask him to take down his fence and he doesn’t even answer you, there’s no balance there.”
Saila Noah came to Montreal 15 years ago to make it as an artist.
Noah is a stone carver with piercing eyes and sinewy forearms from a life spent chiseling, sawing and polishing soapstone. His carvings are little pieces of Inuit life, frozen in time: a hunter creeping up on a walrus, a polar bear, an owl, just about anything his mind can conjure.
“I used to send my art down here through Baffin Inuit Art. They bought and resold it and made a lot more money than I did on each sale,” said Noah. “So I came down here hoping to improve my situation.”
Even with his considerable talent and adaptability, arriving in Montreal was the beginning of a profoundly unsettling experience for Noah.
“The culture shock is overwhelming,” he said. “Everything is different down here. It hits you hard. The hustle and bustle, the noise, it makes you homesick like you couldn’t even imagine. I miss the people, the land, the animals, I miss how fresh each breath feels up there.”
“You live off what you can catch on the land and in the sea: whales, seals and caribou, arctic char and oysters. We call it country food and I crave for it always. I’m not a professional hunter, but I miss having that in my life. But going back would cost an arm and a leg, so you’re sort of stuck between two worlds.”
It isn’t hard to understand how that pain might lead someone down a dark path. Soon after he arrived south, Noah wound up sleeping on the streets. He said it hardened him in ways he never expected. But things are better now. He got help and leaned into his art for solace.
On a muggy Saturday afternoon last month, Noah taught a stone carving workshop for a community group that builds bridges between the residents of Milton-Parc, those who live in walk-up townhouses, and those who live outside. He was drenched in sweat and his hands were coated in dust, but he was all smiles as he watched two non-Indigenous pupils dive into their work.
He held up a polar bear that his student Cara had carved and chiselled.
“Not bad at all,” he said.
“I like doing this, passing on knowledge, working with people eager to learn. The art scene here isn’t easy to break into, but there’s so much going on, people exploring different mediums and ideas. I’m lucky to be a part of that.”
“I look at Milton-Parc and think, ‘This is a reflection of our society.’ People have to realize that what we’re seeing on the streets is the result of the abuse of residential schools, the way people have been treated miserably by our governments and they have to realize the solution isn’t to demonize or point fingers.”
—Marc Miller, federal minister of Indigenous Services.
A few blocks south of the park, on Milton St., Parent spent the afternoon cleaning up sidewalks outside storefronts with some local Inuit. He pays them cash at the end of every shift and sometimes they get to eat country food together.
“It gives us a sense of belonging to this place, that we can be part of the solution, that we can be responsible for our community too,” said Parent. “It’s not charity, it’s honest work for honest pay.”
Of course, the work is more than just cleaning, it allows Parent to build a relationship with people who had previously given up.
“Maybe one day, you’re nursing a hangover and making a few bucks cleaning the street, maybe the next you’re ready to go into detox,” said Parent. “For a lot of these people, the minute the government began intervening in their lives, it was bad news. You have police who crack down on them, a child welfare system that punishes them, a criminal justice system that warehouses them and pretty soon it just feels like the whole world is against you.”
Parent is part of the Indigenous Street Worker Program, an initiative by the RÉSEAU de la communauté Autochtone de Montréal that helps keep vulnerable people safe on the streets.
Other services began to emerge in response to the pandemic pushings hundreds more people into homelessness. The city of Montreal doubled its funding to the Open Door, so it could stay open 24 hours a day, workers also installed a water fountain and portable toilet on Milton St.
But the situation remains desperate. Because, to some degree, the city is stuck dealing with the symptom of a much larger problem; the housing crisis in the north, the violence of colonialism that’s been handed down across generations and systemic racism that leads to a massive overrepresentation of Indigenous folk on the streets.
Though Indigenous people account for less than 1 per cent of Montreal’s population, 10 per cent of the city’s homeless population is Indigenous.
The severity of the problem came into focus last winter, when Raphael André was found frozen to death in a portable toilet off Parc Ave. André, an Innu man, was a regular at the Open Door and would have normally spent the night there but an outbreak of COVID-19 at the shelter forced it to close.
With the city’s overnight shelters pushed to the brink, members of the Kahnawake Mohawk nation worked with Innu chiefs and the Native Women’s Shelter to build a temporary overnight warming centre so others wouldn’t meet the same fate as André. It was such a resounding success that even today — five months after the last snowfall — the warming centre still stands.
It’s been converted to a resource centre that feeds and provides a safe space for over 100 people on the western edge of downtown. Both the resource centre and Open Door cater mainly to the city’s Indigenous homeless population.
What we see on the streets is the end result of crises that go back generations. It’s the product of broken treaties, land theft and the forced removal of hundreds of thousands of Indigenous children from their families — a process that started with residential schools, evolved into the 60s scoop and continues, to this day, with a youth protection system that separates thousands of families each year.
“I look at Milton-Parc and think, ‘This is a reflection of our society,’” said Marc Miller, the federal minister of Indigenous services. “People have to realize that what we’re seeing on the streets is the result of the abuse of residential schools, the way people have been treated miserably by our governments and they have to realize the solution isn’t to demonize or point fingers. We need to take action.
“We’re trying but we haven’t done enough. Whether it’s money for housing, money for social workers or money for harm reduction mechanisms, which are in short supply across the country. We’re funding these initiatives and shelters like Open Door and Resilience Montreal but it’s a deeply rooted problem.”
Sophie Hart had never seen homelessness on such a wide scale before moving from suburban Toronto to Montreal.
She wanted a place that would be close to McGill University but not directly on campus, somewhere she could balance her studies with living in the capital of fun in Canada for a few years. So she settled on the Milton-Parc hood, a quaint collection of shops, apartment buildings and townhouses just a few blocks off campus.
While a lot of her classmates buried themselves in schoolwork or the university’s notorious party scene, Hart felt increasingly uneasy about the misery she saw on the streets every day. So she did something about it.
“I cared about Indigenous issues, I took a minor in Indigenous studies, but I also felt like I was ignoring the community that existed right under my nose,” said Hart, an art history major at McGill. “I thought of myself as someone who was working on reconciliation, as someone who was an ally, but every day I walked past a community that was struggling right before my eyes.”
Before the pandemic began, the Open Door was closed on weekends and after 5 p.m., leaving the neighbourhoods most vulnerable residents without a reliable source of food.
“I saw a gap in services and I love cooking. It felt like an easy fix,” Hart said. “That’s how Meals for Milton Park began. It was about bringing people together around food. I didn’t meet people on the street as clients or users of a service, I met them as neighbours.”
What started in the apartment kitchen of a McGill student turned into a movement. In the year since it was launched, Meals for Milton Park delivered 3,000 meals to the local homeless population, redistributed $15,000 to Indigenous people in Montreal and helped build relationships across cultural divides.
“People on the street, they’ll give me updates like, ‘Oh, my mom’s out of the hospital’ or ‘My sister’s having a baby’ you know, it’s not this unending parade of misery,” said Hart. “It’s not just the sad parts of how they ended up on the streets. We can bond over the good things, over the joy they experience. They make fun of me, which I think is a sign that we’re close.”
“There’s so much humour out here, stuff that never makes it in the papers. Because there’s this paternalistic view of people who can’t take care of themselves. But really they’re surviving a life we could never imagine.”
It took all the resolve “Mary” could muster to name her assailant.
She came south from her village in Nunavik for a doctor’s appointment and wound up on the streets of Milton-Parc for a few nights instead of spending money on a hotel.
Though she was just 25 at the time, Mary knew how to take care of herself. She was smart, resourceful and showed the kind of leadership qualities that led her classmates to elect her as a representative for a political forum at a Montreal-area university.
But that night, there was little she could have done to protect herself from a man who was known to prey on vulnerable women. As she slept in a laneway near Parc Avenue, the assailant tried to force himself on her.
Mary fought back, kicking and punching the man until she broke free. He hit her so hard she spat blood for days. Still, she escaped the assault and told a street worker about it the following day. The worker called 911 and, when police arrived, they were empathetic, they listened and even managed to find her attacker. The officers put him in handcuffs and placed him in the back of their patrol car.
It turns out that man was released from the car a few blocks later. When he found Mary the next morning, he threatened to stab her.
The prevalence of sexual assault against Indigenous women on the streets of Montreal is alarming. It got so bad, in 2017, that the Open Door began tracking the assaults. Of the 19 their staff reported to police that year, only one led to an arrest.
This is where I got involved. A street worker who felt betrayed by the police reached out to me. He put me in touch with Mary. I remember how her voice trembled as she tried to recount what happened to her.
Making matters worse, she was pregnant and scared that if she went to the hospital, someone would report her to youth protection services. We ran a story about the attack in the Montreal Gazette and a few days later, detectives began drawing up the papers to obtain a warrant for the assailant’s arrest.
After we ran the story, Marc Miller, the federal minister, called and asked me to walk him through what had happened, step by step.
“From what I remember, it was one of a number of violent incidents against Indigenous women in Montreal,” said Miller, whose Ville-Marie-Verdun-Île-des-Soeurs riding straddles Milton-Parc. “There was an increase in predation in the sex trade as well. And it bothered me, for some time, that there needed to be a better approach by police and other citizens.”
“There were meetings, the city and the police were there, and there was an acknowledgement that things needed to improve dramatically. But this was part of a much larger problem.”
The prevalence of sexual assault against Indigenous women on the streets of Montreal is alarming. It got so bad, in 2017, that the Open Door began tracking the assaults. Of the 19 their staff reported to police that year, only one led to an arrest.
David Chapman, who ran the shelter back then, recounted how little faith the survivors of these assaults had in the police.
“I remember this woman just walked up to a guy and cold-cocked him in the face. She just punched him out of nowhere,” Chapman told me. “And he yelled, ‘What was that for?’ She said it was because he had raped her the night before. And that punch in the face may be the only justice she ever gets.”
It was another sweltering afternoon on the corner when Parent stepped off the 80 bus at the corner of Milton and Parc.
“The real job is to be on the bricks,” he said. “Our job is basically emotional and physical first aid on the street. It’s just that first, what can we do? Can we break up a fight? Can we stop someone from hurting themselves?
“A big part of our job is to liaison with business owners that are willing to talk to us. To try to calm things down, to ease tensions and make sure people don’t call the cops unless it’s a last, very last resort.”
The night before we met, Parent and the unhoused people living on Parc Ave. ended up at the same concert. It was a free show by the Indigenous group Twin Flames at Place des Festivals and, for a moment, there was no divide between client and street worker, those in recovery and the ones still struggling with addiction.
“We were all just dancing, we were all one,” said Parent. “Sometimes you get these moments you wish you could just freeze in time. That was it, that was something beautiful.”
Parent walked up to a group of clients leaning on the steel fence. People walked by on their way to work, avoiding eye contact, walking around them as though to will the group out of existence. One of Parent’s colleagues handed out freezies to help keep everyone hydrated. Pasha took two and wrapped them around her neck to cool down.
“This guy is okay, I guess,” she said, teasing Parent. “I’m joking, we like you Pierre. I guess.”
This is Parent’s second chance. In another life, he was an addict, a drug dealer and a social pariah convicted of killing his 87-year-old narcotics anonymous sponsor. When I went online to look up news articles on the slaying, it was hard to match the soft spoken Parent with the brutality of his crime.
We didn’t speak about it, him and I, but in a long Word document he sent to me, Parent writes at length about his decade behind bars and the crime that landed him there. He was trying to scam the victim out of some money, she went to scream, he covered her mouth and she dropped dead. He’s lived with her death on his conscience every day since.
But that isn’t where his story ends.
We don’t know what people carry with them when they walk the corners of Milton-Parc. “Mary” was a pregnant young woman and an overachiever forced to sleep in an alley where she was nearly raped. The strangers who pass by Charlotte every day don’t know she’s still mourning her cousin Kitty. She hides the pain well, smiling at pedestrians and trading grimaces with school children.
Parent lives with the certainty that he’ll see the look on someone’s face change when they learn about his crime. He drags that feeling with him like an iron chain shackled to his foot, scraping along the pavement as he walks the streets west of McGill University.
In polite society that sort of thing closes a lot of doors in your face.
In Milton-Parc, it gives you perspective.
After our meeting, Parent hopped on a bus to meet with his parole officer so he could get permission to visit his mom in Ontario. Parent’s father died when he was inside and this would be a chance for him to start repairing some old wounds.
“I got my second chance by the grace of some higher power,” he said. “Some people call that God or divine intervention, I’m just grateful to have this moment to make things right. I’ll never be able to undo what I did. But my life can mean something.
“I can walk with purpose.”
About the editor…
Kurt Chaboyer is a Canadian-American-Métis writer, musician and songwriter.