Thank you for the opportunity to speak to the committee and to present on behalf of Projets Autochtones du Québec.
My name is Heather Johnston. I am the executive director of the organization PAQ, as we're called. I just want to clarify that I am not an indigenous person.
I will start with a very quick introduction of our organization. Our mission at Projets Autochtones du Québec is to create a better everyday life for first nations, Inuit and Métis women and men who are experiencing homelessness or are at risk in urban Montreal. We provide a wide range of accessible services and referrals that meet the basic needs and promote the well-being of the urban indigenous community in downtown Montreal.
We're not just a physical space, however. We are a supportive community for Montreal’s indigenous homeless population. We are a home to people who have experienced profound trauma and stigmatization, where they can find compassion, dignity and respect. PAQ supports community members on their healing journey and on their own terms.
My comments today are made in memory Raphael “Napa” Andre. Raphael Andre was found dead earlier this month in a porta-potty in downtown Montreal. Raphael was a tall, quiet Innu man. He was loved by his family and friends, and he was well known in the street communities of Montreal. He was a member of my organization. He used our shelters frequently over for the past seven years. He was at our shelter the night before he died.
We have seen a lot written about Raphael and the cause of his death—the curfew, lack of shelter spaces and public indifference. There is perhaps some truth in all of these explanations, yet they don't tell the whole story. Raphael Andre died because he was homeless.
Indigenous people experience homelessness at disproportionately high rates. Obviously this is an outcome of colonial legacies combined with ongoing systemic discrimination. The majority of indigenous peoples in Canada now reside in urban areas. It is a population that is expected to continue to grow. In Montreal, the 2018 homeless count indicated that an indigenous person is around 27 more times likely to be homeless than a non-indigenous person. An Inuk is roughly 80 times more likely.
When we look closely at the question of housing for Canada’s urban indigenous peoples, there are three important elements that I believe must be in place if we're to change these statistics. Had these been in place for Raphael, perhaps we could have prevented his death.
First of all, Raphael needed a home, not just an apartment with a room. He would not have coped well living independently. He needed permanent, stable housing with wraparound harm reduction services that would meet him where he was at. He needed a home where he could live life on his own terms, with 24-hour intervention support for addiction and mental health issues. Housing for urban indigenous people will require more than bricks and mortar. It needs to offer services adapted to people's real-life needs and preferences.
Raphael also needed access to culturally adapted health care services. Most indigenous peoples living in the streets express a profound mistrust of the mainstream health care system. The experience of Joyce Echaquan is the experience of every one of the people who use our shelter. We work with people every day who refuse to seek medical care, to the detriment of their own health and sometimes their lives, yet good health care is a fundamental building block to independent living. Housing and health go hand in hand. We cannot consider one without the other. There is a long road to travel to repair the trust in the health care system. This must be a priority for all who seek to address the profound inequality experienced by the urban indigenous.
Thirdly, and finally, Raphael needed a place where he could build community and find healing with other indigenous people. This notion of interdependent community will be an important component of any housing that is adapted to the real-life needs of the urban indigenous population. Too many housing programs favour solitary living arrangements where people are pushed out into the suburbs, far away from community and completely alone. They do not cope well and often abandon stable housing to return to their life within a street community. Housing options need to be in urban areas where indigenous people congregate. They need to include both private and communal spaces where people can benefit from privacy, but also friendship, connectedness and community.
We cannot accept as inevitable the homelessness of our neighbours. Let Raphael's death be a rallying cry, not for more shelter beds and not for more soup kitchens, but for access, without barriers, for all urban indigenous peoples to permanent, safe, appropriate and affordable housing, with the support necessary to live an interdependent life.
Thank you very much. It is a real honour to present to the committee today.