12/13/2013 12:59 EST | Updated 02/12/2014 05:59 EST

Putting a face on aboriginal homelessness in Montreal

I’m at the entrance of a big brown warehouse on de la Gauchetiere Street in a Montreal neighbourhood close to downtown. It’s dark and cold, and there’s blowing snow.

A group of people are gathered outside, waiting for the doors of the front-line service centre, Project autochtoneduQuébec (PAQ), to open.

“Montreal, it’s hard at the beginning, you don’t know that much people, you don’t know that much resources," says SimiuniNauya. who is waiting in the lineup. The 28-year-old Inuk is originally from Ivujivik, in Northern Quebec.  

A co-ordinator is making decisions about who he will allow in for the night. Those who have had too much to drink are asked to wait outside for an hour to sober up.

Simiuni, his brother Lucassie and Lava Partridge, a friend who arrived four years ago from Kuujjuaq, make the cut and are registering inside.

The three young Inuit stick together during the day and even at night when they go to PAQ.

“We’re like brothers," laughs Simiuni, as he looks at Partridge who has a black eye. He got into a fight in the street a couple of days ago, but he is not telling the story, just smiling and raising his eyebrows to answer yes.

Partridge does not want to be forced back up north, because he doesn’t have a place to stay. He doesn’t have much family left in Kuujjuaq. They all live somewhere around Montreal, some with apartments and jobs.

Montreal is in the midst of a real homelessness crisis among aboriginal people. The fastest growing population are Inuit from Nunavik, which comprises the northern third of the province of Quebec​.  

Montreal is behind in terms of services, compared to other big cities like Vancouver, Calgary or Winnipeg.

“The reasons for the increasing number of Inuit moving to the south, and of homeless Inuit, are directly related to social, economic and housing problems in the North,” said Donat Savoie, a northern affairs consultant.

“It is caused by a combined force of factors, including housing and job shortages, and social problems,” he continues.

“Last year, two Inuit died on the streets of Montreal, nobody heard about it,” says Damien Silès, general director at the SociétédeDéveloppement Social de Ville-Marie (SDSVM).

“Now we have more than 400 aboriginals in the streets and the services for them are lacking.”

New services are on the way for Simiuni, his brother and his friend.

“For now we are talking about basic services: food, socks, blankets, with the contribution of Doctors Without Borders, in the street, maybe it will be better," adds Silès. A new homeless shelter with more beds will also be built.

It’s Christmas soon and Simiuni is planning to see his four-year-old daughter who lives with her mother in Montreal.

“At the beginning it was the three of us. And then I started drinking,” said Simiuni. “Not so much at the beginning, but then it was too much.”

Simiuni is learning to be a carver at the Native Friendship Center. As he tells the story, his white hands from the dust of carving rocks are rubbing off on his warm cup of coffee. He has tried to keep a job, but was not always successful.

Asked why he kept drinking knowing he might lose a relationship, he could not answer clearly. “I guess it’s from the pain.”

Simiuni left his village at the age of 10 to live in the city with his mother, but then was placed in foster homes until he was 18. He would like to go back to Ivujivik, but the plane ticket is too expensive and he might not have a home.

In the living room of PAQ, people gather like a family in front of a movie on the television. For this moment, the community is at peace.

Simiuni has been sober for the past two weeks and feels proud. He is pleased that new services will be available for First Nations and Inuit, but he dreams to eventually have his own place, maybe back home in Nunavik.