Our neighbours

by Eve Cable

Unhoused Inuit communities have lived at the intersection of Milton and Parc for years. A six-foot tall metal fence has been preventing them from occupying the intersection’s empty parking lot

If you’re a student in Montreal, particularly at one of our downtown universities, you’re probably going to be familiar with the Milton-Parc neighbourhood. You’ll find frat parties, feral racoons, and a whole lot of trash. A few blocks east, at the intersection of Milton and Parc, you’ll meet a group of wonderful neighbours who have lived unhoused in our area for many years. Mostly hailing from Inuit communities up north, they’ve come to Montreal for family, medical appointments, or job opportunities. Prior to 2020, our neighbours occupied the empty parking lot that you’ll see at the intersection – now, you’ll likely see that empty area closed off by a six foot tall metal fence. If the fence isn’t there, you can safely assume community groups took it down in the dead of the night, but that the property developers responsible for the land will have it back up by the end of the day. Whether you’ve just moved to the area, or whether you’ve lived here for years, you should know the history of life at the intersection, and the impact that the fence has had on those living there. 

The section of Parc Avenue between Sherbrooke and Prince-Arthur has been occupied by unhoused Inuit for years, but use of the empty parking lot at the Milton intersection started around 2018, when the Open Door shelter moved into the basement of Notre-Dame De La Salette church. Prior to that, unhoused people in the area spent time in the alleys between local businesses, generally unsafe lanes that lack street lighting and oftentimes exacerbate already dangerous situations. The alleys are sometimes difficult to access, and with limited visibility from the street, it’s difficult for passersby or emergency services to locate someone in need during an emergency. The Open Door’s arrival and the general move to the empty parking lot made living unhoused in Milton-Parc considerably safer. 

Once the Open Door moved in, the parking lot became a sort of social hub for the clientele of the shelter’s services. Large groups would gather in the area to share food, drink and chat, and for a while, relations were relatively peaceful at the intersection. Occasionally, tensions would be exacerbated by police or community members disgruntled by noise or drinking, but in general people were happy to chat to our neighbours, and our neighbours were relatively safe in the parking lot instead of in back-alleys or on the busy road. For the group that lives at the intersection, the empty lot was an ideal way to preserve the inter-generational structures of their community – with many generations of Inuit living in Milton-Parc, the large public space allowed for cousins, uncles, aunties, mothers, fathers and children to spend time with one another and keep their families together. 

It’s important to note that the majority of those living in Milton-Parc are Indigenous, and therefore have been continually harmed by the settler-colonial government’s ongoing attempts at colonization. Though the last residential school in Canada closed in 1996, the government has continued to enact racist policies contributing to the erasure of Indigenous land, culture, and history. Today, the government continues the same policies of forced assimilation through the foster care system, where Indigenous children represent about 70% of cases, though they represent only around 7% of the child population in Canada. Our neighbours are therefore not just the children of these policies, but they are the people forced to live through them, historically and contemporarily. The government’s failure to support unhoused people at the corner of Milton and Parc is a continuation of the legacy of residential schools, the Sixties Scoop, the Millennial Scoop, and centuries of oppression against Indigenous people.

The fence itself was erected in July 2020, when residents local to the area became unhappy with the increase in unhoused people in Milton-Parc. As COVID outbreaks ravaged homeless shelters throughout the city, centres struggled to stay open, unable to intake new residents during active outbreaks. With COVID’s continuing increase in virality, it became near impossible for any shelter in Montreal to stay open 24 hours, as they fought off the virus, and active cases in every city shelter meant that most were forced to shut down temporarily, or at least limit their opening hours. The Open Door became a lifeline for vulnerable unhoused people during this period, being one of the only locations in the city to stay open. And, as one of the few wet shelters (meaning the shelter can service individuals using alcohol and other substances), the humble church basement became a crucial community resource for unhoused people from across the city, not just in Milton-Parc. This led to an increase in people seeking assistance in the neighbourhood, meaning more people occupying the empty lot at the intersection. As the pandemic progressed, the Open Door’s opening hours changed, meaning an increase in people outside the service earlier in the day.

A small but vocal minority of residents were unhappy, and unsympathetic to the systemic issues of the homelessness crisis in our city, taking and sharing photographs of unhoused neighbours in their most vulnerable times instead of offering a helping hand. The group found the owners of the empty lot, Goldmanco Inc., and reached out to them with an email petition citing noise complaints and issues concerning communications between the unhoused and other Milton-Parc residents, ultimately requesting that Goldmanco get involved in community relations in the area. The company responded by hiring independent contractors to erect the steel fence around the empty lot, marking the start of the ongoing battle to allow for community use of the unused space. 

Goldmanco Inc. is a small property development company based in Ontario. They have limited contact options, making it difficult for community organisers to get in touch with those responsible for erecting the fence – although the company appears to have a history of communication with those advocating for the fence’s installation. With the company being located outside of Quebec, it’s even harder to make clear to those responsible the severe impact of their actions, and complaints advocating for unhoused neighbours’ safety seem to fall on deaf ears. 

The company’s inability to take responsibility for their role in endangering Indigenous lives is testament to the ongoing inability of Canadian individuals and corporations to meaningfully enact reconciliation. Goldmanco Inc.’s fence has played a direct role in the disintegration of intergenerational community bonds at Milton and Parc, thereby furthering the project of Canadian colonialism by physically preventing families and communities from peacefully existing. The fence is also literally endangering Indigenous lives – in August 2020, Kitty Kakkinerk was struck and killed by a City of Montreal vehicle while running from an abusive ex-partner. Community members believe that if the fence had not been there she would have run into the empty lot; instead she was forced to run into the road, which is almost always filled with fast-moving traffic. After her death, neither Goldmanco or the city offered assistance, or an explanation of future plans for the empty lot. 

The fight against Goldmanco’s fence is ongoing, a seemingly endless game of cat and mouse where community groups will tear down the fence and contractors who know nothing about the area will re-erect it the next day. But our community will always battle on, rallying resources to support our unhoused neighbours in the absence of city support for a systemic issue they are continually complicit in. Send emails to city officials and Goldmanco Inc. expressing your anger, donate and volunteer with initiatives like the Open Door that continue to keep life vibrant at Milton and Parc, and support harm reduction initiatives that keep people alive in our city when the government fails to do so. Anyone new to Montreal needs to understand that Milton-Parc is a special place to live, and the intersection – affectionately known by those who love it as ‘Inuit Street’ – is the heart of our community, and always will be.