Social invisibility is something that minorities know well. It was a theme pursued in an open letter by Indigenous artists who challenged the propriety of Robert Lepage’s Kanata, a theatre work about white/Indigenous relations that included no aboriginal people in its creative team.
Part of their complaint – which was pilloried and distorted by Lepage supporters for weeks after the Montreal show’s cancellation in July – was that Mr. Lepage had created a white space where Indigenous experience ought to be. His critics were also unhappy about how limited access to grants and production resources keeps Indigenous performing artists invisible to the general public.
Quebec’s arts-funding agency seemed to react quickly, with the recent launch of a new five-stream program for Indigenous artists. It’s called Recognition, has some features tailored to the community, and will be advised by a committee that includes several of those who signed the open letter against Kanata. No budget was revealed. The Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec (CALQ) insisted, with bureaucratic dignity, that it had been discussing Recognition internally for more than a year and was not a response to recent events.
The City of Montreal probably had less lead time when it announced last week that rookie alderman Marie-Josée Parent, elected last November as the city’s first-ever aboriginal councillor, will take charge of the city’s reconciliation efforts. Perhaps that will mark a significant change in the city’s attitude toward Indigenous peoples, which sometimes seems aimed at making them as invisible as possible.
Those bearing the brunt of this tendency are the homeless Inuit. The Inuit are only about one-tenth of the city’s Indigenous population, but almost half of the aboriginal homeless. They’re much more likely than the norm to be female, and to stay stuck on the street long-term, in part because of low skills and a lack of French.
There are shelters that support the homeless Inuit, with some financial help from Makivik Corp., the entity formed to administer revenue from the 1975 James Bay Agreement, and whose responsibility for Inuit welfare extends to Montreal. The police may help out a bit, too, although they’re notorious for issuing tickets to Inuit for trivial infractions, such as loitering, jaywalking or impeding pedestrian traffic. Some Inuit on the street have run up hundreds of dollars in fines, which puts an administrative burden on the shelters who help them and can result in jail time. It’s hard to think of a more blatant way to criminalize homelessness.
Three years ago, the city did a $6.3-million renovation of Cabot Square, a green space opposite the old Montreal Forum, where Inuit homeless people often gathered. The new park had features designed to repel them, including a lot more concrete and benches that discourage sleeping. There was no big-ticket expenditure on finding a place for those displaced people to go.
In March, four months after the new city administration was elected, a $7.8-million plan to help the homeless in general was aired, with 950 more social-housing units projected over three years. It’s still waiting on the digestion of more data, and it’s not clear that remedies designed for the overall street population will do much to meet the specific needs of the Inuit.
The Inuit are unique in that many came to Montreal to escape homelessness and hunger in their home communities in Nunavik, the self-governing aboriginal territory that forms the northern third of Quebec. Attempts by territorial and federal authorities to solve Nunavik’s long-running housing crisis are moving at a glacial pace.
Montreal’s homeless Inuit are essentially refugees, although they are granted none of the respect and little of the support offered to refugees from other countries. They have fallen to the bottom of the social order, and are reminded of that fact every time a cop hands them another $100 ticket they can’t possibly pay. However dysfunctional their home communities may be, when they hit the street in Montreal, they lose much that is culturally sustaining to them.
Perhaps the Quebec government should take a bigger role in dealing with this tragic migration within its borders. The main thing that needs to happen is that those with the resources to help begin to really look at these people, and not just as a nuisance to be shunted from one city corner to another. They need to let the city’s homeless Inuit become fully visible as Indigenous human beings.