OTTAWA — An Ottawa homeless shelter where demand for services has skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic served as the backdrop for the first-ever public event for Gov. Gen. Mary May Simon Friday.
May Simon and her husband, former journalist Whit Fraser, spent about an hour at the Ottawa Mission in the morning, meeting with staff and volunteers and handing out hot meals to dozens of clients lined up down the block for what may be their only real meal of the upcoming long weekend.
Some of the clients expressed displeasure at the disruption and media presence surrounding May Simon's visit, pulling hats and jacket hoods down over their faces as she and Fraser handed out cardboard boxes of fish and chips and some small bags of groceries.
But others thanked her for helping and chatted with her briefly as they packed some fresh vegetables, a box of cereal, and a few canned goods into backpacks and shoulder bags.
May Simon said in a statement issued later by email that community organizations like the Ottawa Mission are a vital support to vulnerable Canadians.
Aileen Leo, the director of communications, said because of the pandemic the need has never been greater.
"COVID has made food insecurity so much worse," she told The Canadian Press in an interview, following May Simon's visit.
Leo said in 2019, before the pandemic, the Mission handed out about 520,000 meals, and last year that grew to more than 728,000.
This year they're on track to hand out between 900,000 and one million meals.
Leo said job losses have really hurt a lot of people, and many organizations had to cut back on their services because of the pandemic.
The Mission is looking to buy a second food truck because the one truck they have that provides meals around the city can't keep up.
"I've been to many food trucks where people line up for hours with their kids, in the freezing cold or the searing heat," she said. "If they are prepared to do that you know they are hungry."
May Simon and Fraser didn't skip the COVID protocols at the door — having their temperatures taken, and answering the questions about symptoms or potential exposure to COVID-19. They wore gloves and face masks during the visit as well.
Leo said they spent about an hour at the facility, including the brief time helping to hand out food, a tour of the hospice, the health clinic and the chapel.
May Simon is Canada's first Inuk governor general. She was sworn in July 26.
Later this month she will embark on her first foreign trip, a four-day state visit to Germany where she'll meet with Chancellor Angela Merkel and represent Canada at the 2021 Frankfurt Book Fair.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 8, 2021.
Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press