Op-Ed for the Westmount Independent, with photos by Robert J. Galbraith, 06/08/14
Legend has it that when Italian, Giovanni Caboto discovered the Grand Banks of Canada in 1497, the crew dropped wooden buckets over the edge of the ship and pulling them up, they witnessed that the buckets were overflowing with cod fish. Caboto (under commisssion by Britain to discover new lands and riches), had discovered North America’s fish Eldorado.
Now flash ahead 517 years and 1600 miles west to Cabot Square in downtown Montreal, bordering Westmount at Atwater and St. Catherine Street. A handful of native people are gathered on the white marble steps at the base of the statue, while above their heads the life-size bronze figure of the famous explorer looms overhead, his hand stoutly clasped above his head, as though still scanning the horizon for land and riches.
But for the native people gathered below, there are no riches, no new land and no certainty. They are the orphans of the street. They don’t make mortgage payments, they don’t have car payments and they definitely won’t be going to the cottage with Fluffy and the kids this coming weekend. They are an underground culture of survivalists, modern-day hunter gatherers born amidst a clash of cultures and circumstance. They are considered the dregs of society by many; drunkards, dopers, mental patients and those who have fallen due to unenviable circumstances. One may even be your friend or family member. Life on the street is life on the edge and they accept that and survive, but they also know that that edge is about to get narrower.
The City of Montreal is revitalizing a number of Montreal’s parks, Cabot Square being one of them. In June, a fence will be erected around the circumference of the square to temporarily block pedestrian traffic while it undergoes the much needed, year-long renovation, (at a cost of $6.5 million). Westmount contributed $21,000 towards the hiring of two social workers who will work on the streets to assist the homeless with their needs or assistance. Westmount will be increasing patrols in the area just west of the square. But where are the homeless of Cabot Square going to gather after the park closes – Westmount Square perhaps?
“We’re all moving to Westmount when we get kicked out of here,” chuckled one man sporting a Habs’ jersey, while just a stone’s-through from where the iconic old Montreal Forum was located.
Walking through the park, anyone can see the square is in bad need of an overhaul. The grass has been worn-down to the dirt, the pathways are hard to decipher and the overall square just looks tired and uninviting. Tire tracks from patrolling police cruisers have killed-off what remains of the grass. It is an eyesore. But so are police cruisers parked in the middle of a petite city park.
The police are part of the problem in the square. A cop car (or any car) parked in the middle of the square is callous and un-concerning and adds to the siege mentality that the square appears to be immersed in. Who wants to pass through what looks like a crime scene; it might just as well be a tank parked there. One might wonder if the police leaders ever heard of putting away the armed vehicles and trying foot patrols?
No one languishing in the square will speak openly about the police presence for fear of reprisals. But they all said they are not helping by intimidation. “We might be homeless and have drug or booze problems but we are still human beings,” explained Rose (not here real name), an Inuit native from Nunavut. Most of the Inuit at the square are from northern Quebec (Nunavik), along the Hudson Bay and north. There are around 50 regulars who hang out in the square with a larger floating population. A few are from Nunavut.
These people came to the city largely because of a lack of housing and over-crowding in their northern communities. The reality of this pathetic housing situation was brought about by bad management and planning by both the provincial and federal governments and theft of community funds by their own native leaders. One may blame the other, but they helped fuel this problem by their lack of vision and direction, be it proper housing or support. The housing problems in the north is inhumane and I wonder how we can support new immigrants and refugees from other parts of the world while our own people, the people we stole this land from, continue to suffer and live in third-world living conditions, or worse.
The police have a very difficult job to do but there is a fine line between public order and crossing that line. Seeing a bulky, 250lbs, black-leather-gloved gorilla, towering over a small, Inuit native, well; what’s that got to say about perception and David and Goliath? But to be completely honest and fair, the cops have to duck the odd beer bottle and risk being injured in a scuffle. But image is everything and they (the cops) just don’t get it. It is a clash of cultures – one of greed – and one of survival in a conquerors world. So it’s a tough situation at the square.
Rose watches the cops move on, then turns away to block the wind as she cups her hands to light the stub of a marijuana joint she pulled from her cigarette pack. The sickly sweet and intrusive smell of pot swirls through the air up to the base of Cabot’s feet, as business people walk to and fro to work, cutting across the park to pick up the morning coffee.
“We’ll just move on to another park or alleyway and meet there, but we would rather be here. This is where our friends and family meet. It’s our home and community,” she explained. “Sometimes when our family visits from the north, they bring us Arctic char and we eat it right here with our family and friends. The facilities we need are within a couple of blocks of here. The drop-in centre, the hospitals and native care centre.”
This is the real dilemma here. The facilities for these people (and their visiting families) are all close to the square. So the square is the centre of the universe to the homeless first peoples, particularly the native people of the north, the Inuit. Apart from the native people that hang out in the square, they share the space with a smaller number of non-natives. However, to this group of close companions, colour or race doesn’t matter when you are all in the same boat. Hunger and uncertainty knows no colour.
The situation in Cabot Square is a tempest in a tea-pot; a fabrication. The homeless may be the most adaptable people in our society. They know how to survive.
“You have to understand that this is our home,” said Rose. Our family and community members gather here and the location is close to the services we need, so we gather here. When they ask us to leave, we’ll leave, but we’ll still be here, nearbye. It’s a free country!”
Leaving the square and crossing the middle of Tupper Avenue at Atwater, an attractive, high-heeled business lady crosses my path, making her way to the square. The reek of pot teases my nostrils again. I look back to see her crossing into the park with a lit joint in her hand, her flowered scarf blowing in the breeze. Life goes on in the big city.