Inuk woman remembered for her compassion and kindness at Montreal vigil

·4 min read
Inuk woman remembered for her compassion and kindness at Montreal vigil
Advocates say more should be done for Montreal's homeless population. Montreal says it is in discussions with the Quebec government, and looking for indoor space to use as a shelter. (Kwabena Oduro/CBC - image credit)
Advocates say more should be done for Montreal's homeless population. Montreal says it is in discussions with the Quebec government, and looking for indoor space to use as a shelter. (Kwabena Oduro/CBC - image credit)

Heather Ravel first met Elisapie "Elizabeth" Pootoogook in Montreal's Cabot Square four years ago, and she remembers the 61-year-old Inuk woman as "a very loving woman."

"She never had anything bad to say about anyone," Ravel said.

Ravel spent Monday afternoon handing out flowers to those who attended a vigil in honour of Pootoogook, who was found dead at a construction site near the corner of Atwater Avenue and René-Lévesque Boulevard on the morning of Nov. 13.

Pootoogook sometimes came to Montreal for medical treatment from Salluit, one of Quebec's northernmost communities, nearly 2,000 kilometres from the city.

Investigators determined that the woman was not the victim of a crime and the case was transferred to the coroner's office for further investigation.

Ravel said she was homeless when she first met Pootoogook, and years later they would hug every time they saw each other.

She remembers giving Pootoogook her jacket and gloves one winter, when it was particularly cold.

WATCH | Elisapie Pootoogook remembered in Montreal:

"There should be more shelters around here for the homeless," said Ravel, as a few dozen people gathered in Cabot Square with flowers and photos of Pootoogook.

Death was preventable, advocate says

During the vigil, some people spoke, sharing memories of her life. There was drumming, singing, crying — and police officers standing watch nearby.

David Chapman, executive director of Resilience Montreal, knew Pootoogook for about eight years.

He said she would come to Montreal for medical treatment, go to see friends and often end up on the streets with no place to stay, dodging security in the Atwater Metro station in an effort to keep warm.

Her body was found not far from the Metro station.

Kwabena Oduro/CBC
Kwabena Oduro/CBC

Chapman said Pootoogook's death was "totally preventable."

"What we need is more accessible shelter spaces," said Chapman, and the warming tent in Cabot Square isn't enough. A permanent indoor space is needed, he said.

Chapman recalled a moment when Pootoogook borrowed his phone to sing lullabies to her grandchildren.

"She was loved, and she will be missed," he said.

Singing in Cabot Square for Pootoogook

Ronald Coolan knew Pootoogook for about two decades. He gave a speech at the vigil.

Coolan said Pootoogook's body is being taken home to her community in the north, but the pain of her loss isn't going away any time soon. She had been in town only for about a week before this happened, he said, and he's frustrated she died alone.

Kwabena Oduro/CBC
Kwabena Oduro/CBC

Though it's still unclear how she died, Coolan said it is important that people stick together when they are out drinking, especially when the temperature drops.

Coolan still looks back fondly on the day he first met Pootoogook in Cabot Square.

"She was always interested in singing," said Coolan. She asked him to sing for her, and he did. They quickly became friends, and the friendship endured.

"She was very kind. A very compassionate lady, always concerned about other people."

She was a mother, a grandmother and a friend, Coolan said, and now "it hurts."

Montreal looking for solutions

After gathering in Cabot Square and sharing memories, vigil participants walked to the construction site where Pootoogook died.

Flowers were placed on the sidewalk under a photo of her, leaned against a wall surrounding the condo that is currently under development where the Children's Hospital once stood.

City spokesperson Marikym Gaudreault said that since February 2021, Montreal has funded and set up a heated and air-conditioned tent at Cabot Square. However, the tent existed prior to the city getting involved.

The Native Women's Shelter of Montreal and Resilience Montreal spearheaded the initiative, after Raphaël Napa André, a 51-year-old Innu man, was found frozen to death in January in a chemical toilet.

The tent was initially funded by donations, including a $25,000 contribution by Mary Martin-Goodleaf and her husband Barton Goodleaf, who own the Host Hotel in Kahnawake.

The city administration gave the project the green light and provided the tent, before ultimately funding the initative.

Montreal is in discussions with the Quebec government on what more can be done for the city's homeless population this winter, Gaudreault said. The city is ready to continue offering the heated tent, and to look for more suitable alternatives, she said.

"We continue to work on finding a sustainable solution as an alternative to the tent," she said.

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