Death of homeless drunk Alvin Cote has profound effect on Saskatoon

Matthew Coutts
Daily Brew

A local legend passed away in Saskatoon late last month, prompting an extended period of mourning — especially among local police officers who had warmed to the man's gruff exterior and personal faults.

He was not a hero, not a slick-suited politician or a celebrity. He was a drunk, and by most accounts a terrible one at that.

He was quirky, he stunk of booze and he hated Anne Murray. But he was a significant thread in the local fabric and was cherished by officers who patrolled the downtown — where he had been arrested more than 800 times, usually for public drunkenness.

Here is the obituary of Alvin Cote. It will tell you very little about who he was:

Alvin Leslie Cote
Passed away on April 19, 2013 at the age of 59 years in Saskatoon, SK.
A wake was held on Sunday, April 21, 2013 from the Cote First Nation Band Hall.
A Traditional Funeral Service was held on Monday, April 22, 2013 also from the Cote First Nation Band Hall.
Interment followed at the Cote First Nation Cemetery.

A more telling story of Cote's life was captured by the The Saskatoon StarPhoenix's Charles Hamilton and David Hutton in 2012, less than a year before he would pass away.

The story was nominated for a National Newspaper Award and it began, "Less than an hour after Alvin Cote is released from the drunk tank, he is back on the street, trying to bum 15 cents so he can buy another bottle."

[ Related: Saskatoon police mourn homeless drunk ]

Cote's story is a sad one, if you care to see it that way. It isn't clear how he ended up on the street, but he was as proud member of the Cote First Nation, located in eastern Saskatchewan. He grew up in a family of 13 brothers and sisters, according to the StarPhoenix. His older sister Helen tried to get him clean over the years; tried and failed.

"He almost burnt the house down twice trying to cook eggs," she told the newspaper. "(When he's) drunk, he's too much to deal with — the yelling and screaming."

In the end, it was the streets of Saskatoon for him. Even the shelters stopped taking him in, mostly because of his drinking problem. It was too much to handle.

It was left to downtown police officers to watch over him, adopt him. Give him reading glasses and a magazine when he ended up in the drunk tank, share their lunch, change or a pair of spare mittens with the guy who, as often as anywhere, could be found sleeping on a bench inside police headquarters.

"In my line of work, it’s not often that you can arrest somebody on multiple occasions and end up being friends with them," Const. Derek Chesney wrote about Alvin in a Saskatoon Police Service blog post last month.

"I have yet to meet a tougher and hardier individual than Alvin. The many years of alcohol abuse and hard street living had definitely taken a toll on him."

Chesney recounts his first experience with Cote, when he and his partner found him drunk and angry. Cote kept flexing his muscles and declaring himself a fighter. "I told him that I had heard he was a lover, not a fighter. He started to laugh and said, 'Well, I’m that to you now,'" Chesney writes.

Other stories recount a genuine individual. He loved to drink, and made no bones about it. In the StarPhoenix’s profile on Cote, it is revealed that he also enjoyed reading, when he had glasses that would allow it, but once became outraged when offered a Reader’s Digest with singer Anne Murray on the cover.

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It is not clear why he hated Anne Murray, nor is it clear where he would go during the stretches when he was absent from the streets of Saskatoon. Chesney says in his post that Cote often talked about visiting Vancouver and Los Angeles, but it isn’t clear he ever made it.

“It will be different as I walk my downtown beat knowing that he will not be in one of the banks and I won’t have to make a special trip to go check on him,” Chesney wrote.

“As an officer, you encounter many individuals, but you remember certain people because they are special, and Alvin was one such special person. Alvin was not a rich or well accomplished man. He drank daily and chose to make the street his home, but he was tough, he was a fighter, and he was a survivor.”

Cote wasn't a perfect man. He was troubled and broken in many ways, sucked up in a maelstrom of social problems and unwilling and unable to reach out for help.

He took what help he could, handouts mostly, but never managed to benefit from the system designed to help him. In the end, sadly, it seemed he preferred it that way.

"Why do they stop me from drinking? I'm going to drink anyway," he told the StarPhoenix with a laugh. "Right by the tables, by the river. That's where I always drink, anyway."

(Photos courtesy of the Saskatoon Police Service and Andrychuk Funeral Home)

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