In 2020, people without homes were hit badly by the pandemic and the executive director of the Native Women Shelter and co-manager of Resilience Montreal, Nakuset, witnessed it all. The Eastern Door sat down (virtually) with this incredible public figure to go over key moments of this roller-coaster of a year.
TED: Looking back at 2020, what have the past 12 months taught you?
Nakuset: Perseverance. It seems like I’ve been able to accomplish almost more than what I’ve been able to in other years. I don’t understand how I did that, considering how horrible COVID is. The world became paralyzed. We had to constantly advocate and bring attention to the issues that homeless people were facing in Montreal - the whole injustice of the entire country being safe and staying indoors while those that had no indoors were left to their own devices. What I learned was to step up, and to find solutions. Undeniably, it forced us to sacrifice a lot of things.
TED: What did you have to give up this year?
Nakuset: Free time! I had to work like a maniac. But also, my children. When COVID hit, I assumed I would get it. My children stayed with their father for two months because of that. I didn’t see them and I worked non-stop. It was devastating. We Facetimed or saw each other by the window but it was really hard.
TED: There wasn’t any plan or guidelines on how to manoeuvre a pandemic. Which of your solutions or initiatives made you the proudest?
Nakuset: When we had to close and move the women from the shelter in the spring. I’ve been there for the past 20 years and we had never, ever, had to close. But with my job, I have a group of professionals that I’m able to network with and we were able to find a second location that way. We were able to get the staff healthy again, to clean and fix the shelter. But putting together the protest for Joyce Echaquan was definitely the highlight of my career this year. In five days, we were able to put something together that was so powerful. It was overwhelming. It felt like I should retire after that. Having the people from the deaf community asking if they could send someone to have it translated, that never happened to me before. When you are able to bring people out and show that it’s not just a group of Indigenous people that are upset about Joyce, but it’s all of society that has come out, it puts pressure on the government for change.
TED: More than ever, the inequalities and injustices were brought forward. Did you notice a change in perspective when it comes to Indigenous issues?
Nakuset: I think some of the ways that people come together to address the issues have changed. But police violence against Indigenous people and systemic racism, all that continues. What happened to Joyce Echaquan brought a completely different awareness that we haven’t seen before, where non-Indigenous people were able to share their outrage. That’s different. Having the new Native Affairs minister, Ian Lafrenière, is also very ambitious. Since he’s been in his position, he’s been doing press conferences regularly, making different commitments.
TED: Lafrenière recently announced $600,000 in fundings for the relocation of Resilience Montreal. The day shelter’s lease is up in April. What are the next steps?
Nakuset: More money! We want to reopen Resilience in a beautiful location. We have a place in mind, but it’s not secured yet. Right now, the idea of homelessness in Montreal, especially for Indigenous people, is an ongoing issue. What we had before is only a bandage. You have the Viens Commission, the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls call to justice, all the recommendations that everyone is aware of, but nothing is really being applied yet. Until society changes and helps give Indigenous people access to addiction centres, to hospitals and to apartments, they are still stuck. If we provide a space where we can help strengthen them, it’s a start. It’s what we are trying to create with this new location. Once we have the building, we’ll have different services in place. The whole idea of a wellness centre for the homeless is something that hasn’t been done before. People who come in the shelters are traumatized, they have been through the most horrific experience. This is about welcoming people into a healthy space.
TED: With everything closed down, we all had to redefine how to stay healthy, mentally and physically. In which way did you start to think differently about yourself?
Nakuset: I just turned 50, but I still have a lot of work to do. I just hope that I can keep moving forward, and keep the momentum going. I can’t rest now, people are watching and I better deliver. If anything, it makes me want to bring in really positive energy and continue to work harder, make more change and inspire people to do it as well. I can’t do it alone.
Virginie Ann, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eastern Door