On any given night in Montreal’s downtown Cabot Square, Nakuset contemplates that as many as 13 times, the permissible number of unhoused people, will present themselves at the entrance of the Espace Raphaël “Napa” André tent.
After nearly eight months managing the temporary warming space and welcoming over 7,000 people in need of momentary comfort, Nakuset knows this routine all too well.
“We have up to 200 people showing up a night and yet we only have 16 spots to offer,” said the executive director of the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal.
“Most of our staff end up working outside the tent, where they can at least have conversations with people and support them. But the cold weather’s coming and the tent still needs to be out by December 1.”
In late June, the permit extension granted by the City of Montreal to operate the memorial tent until December became the latest temporary solution to addressing the needs of unhoused individuals frequenting the downtown area.
As the pleas to establish a permanent wet shelter open at night persist, efforts to maintain the current memorial tent in operation are far from over.
“What we’re doing now is asking different chiefs who have people coming to Montreal, and who are falling through the cracks, if they can offer support – whether it’s monetary, human resource or anything else,” explained Nakuset.
“I’m really happy that we have all these communities coming together, because really, in the end, it’s their people – so we need to come together and find a solution.”
When the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake (MCK) was asked to assign representatives who would contribute to ensure the continuity of the tent, they responded without hesitation.
“The Council of Chiefs understands the important role that the Espace Raphaël André site plays for First Nations members that have had to seek assistance and shelter, and agrees that there is an urgent need to develop a plan (...),” reads a letter signed on behalf of MCK, dated September 13.
With this, MCK grand chief Kahsennénhawe Sky-Deer, along with chiefs Mike Delisle and Bart Goodleaf, agreed to take the lead on the initiative.
“After the initial pride of seeing community members and entrepreneurs donating (to the project) – this now just gets extended through the council’s participation,” said Delisle.
When Raphaël André’s body was found steps away from Montreal’s Open Door drop-in centre in January, Kahnawa’kehró
“It’s really a social issue that needs to be addressed longer term,” noted Delisle.
The funds raised within the community were added to contributions namely made by the Innu Nation, as well as non-profit organizations.
“If we don’t have money for the tent, people aren’t going to go to the other services. There’s this fantasy that everyone will run to other shelters – but they won’t go,” said Nakuset. “Especially the Indigenous people who don’t feel safe in those other places.”
The executive director expressed that the culturally-safe approach offered by Onkwehón:we staff operating the Cabot Square space is a substantial part of the tent’s success.
While the supportive involvement of communities from across the province currently aims to keep the tent afloat, Nakuset and others remain committed to pushing forward a sustainable solution.
“If I had a magic wand, we would already have the Raphaël André memorial shelter,” she said. “There are so many solutions available to us, so let’s do something and let’s do it holistically.”
Laurence Brisson Dubreuil, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eastern Door