Montreal's ombudswoman described homelessness experienced by Indigenous people in the city as a "humanitarian crisis" in a report released Wednesday.
Nadine Mailloux conducted a six-month investigation into the living conditions of homeless Indigenous people in the city's central Milton Park neighbourhood, following complaints by citizens about violence, drug trafficking and prostitution in the area.
Mailloux said the homeless who are living in the district, particularly the Inuit, are suffering "intolerable human distress."
Her report denounced a lack of accountability and collaboration between Montreal authorities and outside organizations to improve the situation and offer appropriate services.
"There are no resources in Montreal specifically dedicated to the Inuit community, despite the fact that it is different from other Indigenous people; they are far from their home communities and families, with a different language and culture," Mailloux wrote.
Despite the city's promises to improve its relationship with Indigenous people, Mailloux's investigation revealed what she called "a flagrant lack of planning" by the city to address homelessness and housing resources. "We find it surprising that in December and January, these measures were still in their initial phase," her report said.
"Two years into the pandemic, its impact on homeless services was well-known," she added. "Also, winter and its deep freeze come around every year."
Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante said the report highlights the need for the city to have more money to address the issue.
"When it comes to homelessness, the city helps to find places. I say we help, but we don't necessarily have the financial means," Plante told reporters. "It remains the Quebec government's responsibility."
The Milton Park district has become over the years a gathering place for a group of Indigenous people without homes, especially since the relocation in 2018 of the Open Door shelter to the area.
The report, however, noted that the shelter is facing financing and governance issues that have an impact on the quality of its services. The Open Door did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Mailloux issued a series of recommendations to the city, including support programs for Inuit who arrive in Montreal and more shelter options for that community.
Montreal’s most recent homeless count indicates that an Indigenous person living in the city is about 27 times more likely to be homeless than a non-Indigenous person. Inuit account for 25 per cent of homeless Indigenous people, even though they make up only five per cent of the Indigenous population in Montreal.
The report stated that living conditions in Inuit communities, such as housing scarcity and overcrowding, the high cost of living and food insecurity, contribute to Inuit overrepresentation in Montreal's homeless population.
Brett Pineau, executive director of the Native Friendship Centre, who's been working closely with the city to improve the situation, echoed the report's findings.
"A lot of complex social issues that we are seeing are also directly, or indirectly, related to residential schools' legacy and intergenerational trauma associated with that," Pineau said in an interview Wednesday.
Pineau said the Milton Park situation is inevitably connected to this historical and social context. He said Inuit who travel to Montreal need support but often cannot obtain it.
"We all want to see change," Pineau said. "We are all focused on improving conditions not only for residents within the area but also for the individuals themselves. It’s not going to change overnight."