Nunatsiaq News
FEATURES: Iqaluit June 09, 2017 - 8:00 am

Inuit couple brings comfort to Nunavut capital’s forgotten squatters

"Nobody deserves to live like this"

Everton Lewis holds a coffee container that Jayko Langer and Linda Shaimaiyuk delivered to him, with other foodstuffs, at the abandoned boat where he lives on the beach in Iqaluit. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)
Everton Lewis holds a coffee container that Jayko Langer and Linda Shaimaiyuk delivered to him, with other foodstuffs, at the abandoned boat where he lives on the beach in Iqaluit. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)
Everton Lewis sits on the stern of the abandoned wooden boat where he lives on the beach in Iqaluit. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)
Everton Lewis sits on the stern of the abandoned wooden boat where he lives on the beach in Iqaluit. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)
Here's a look at one of the boxes filled by Linda Shaimaiyuk and Jayko Langer for the homeless people they visit. (PHOTO COURTESY OF L. SHAIMAIYUK)
Here's a look at one of the boxes filled by Linda Shaimaiyuk and Jayko Langer for the homeless people they visit. (PHOTO COURTESY OF L. SHAIMAIYUK)

When Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla, along with Canadian dignitaries and politicians, descend on Iqaluit June 29, they are unlikely to meet the people who live in squalid shacks, tents, vehicles and boats around this city of roughly 8,000 people.

It’s hard to imagine their entourage heading over the sandy beach, dodging piles of mud, rotting food, broken plastic bags and other refuse, to reach dwellings, with no heat, toilets, running water or garbage collection.

These makeshift dwellings reflect a standard of living expected in a poor, developing country rather than anywhere in Canada—particularly in Canada’s cold Arctic as the country whoops up its 150th celebrations.

An Iqaluit couple, Linda Shaimaiyuk and Jayko Langer, say they would be happy to take the VIP visitors to Nunavut’s capital on a tour to places like the causeway, the beach and out by the airport. That’s where you can find people squatting in shacks, tents, vehicles and boats because they can’t get into public housing, afford private accommodations or stay at the city’s homeless shelter.

The two have gotten to know these deprived residents of Iqaluit through their efforts to provide free food, fuel, clothing—and comfort—without judgment, they say.

People like Everton Lewis.

Lewis lives in an abandoned boat, within view of the city and Sylvia Grinnell Territorial Park, where the visiting royals will preside over a community feast by the Sylvia Grinnell River falls, with a grand vista of the hills beyond.

Lewis, 49, originally from Jamaica, has lived on and off in Nunavut for 20 years and, for months now, he has lived in a wooden boat pulled up on the beach, circled by piles of sodden garbage that have surfaced since the snow melted.

On a recent visit to this boat, Shaimaiyuk and Langer dropped off a big cardboard box filled with items like tomato juice, spaghetti, bread and toilet paper.

“I know I won’t starve today,” said Lewis as he looked at the food.

When asked about living in an unheated, damp boat, Lewis, dressed in a quilted jumpsuit, thick leather gloves and a toque, on a day with sunny, zero-degree temperatures, said that for now, because the weather has warmed, “it’s paradise.”

“It could be worse. It was worse,” Lewis said of the long, dark winter when temperatures dropped to minus 40 or lower and wind off Frobisher Bay blew through the worn blanket he’s tacked up on the entrance to the cabin where he sleeps.

Lewis said the boat is a better place to live than the homeless shelter, because, in his boat, at least “I have respect.”

The Iqaluit men’s shelter has 22 bunk beds in three crowded rooms, but most nights, more than 30 men stay there, some on couches and chairs in the common room—and you have to come sober and remain calm to stay there.

As for his homelessness—and that of others who have no place to go—Lewis said leaders “know what the problem is and they have to do something about it.”

In January, city councillors renewed their commitment to help the homeless in Iqaluit, which some have estimated to be as much as 10 to 15 per cent of the city’s adult population—that is, about half of the total Inuit adult population of the city.

Then, in March, the Government of Nunavut said it might open a “wet shelter” for the homeless who also have mental health and substance abuse problems.

“If they don’t do anything about it, they’re not caring about it,” Lewis said.

Shaimaiyuk, 32, and Langer, 36, started to collect and distribute donations of food, fuel and clothing a few weeks ago when they realized that the existing supports for many homeless people in Iqaluit—the soup kitchen, thrift shop, food bank and the Tukisigiarvik friendship centre, which Charles and Camilla will visit—weren’t enough.

These, and other places, such as the Tim Horton’s outlet and the lobbies of public buildings, are only open during the day but hunger and the need for basic necessities is a 24-7 requirement, they say.

“We all get hungry and we all want to be loved,” said Shaimaiyuk. “They might be strangers. But nobody deserves to live like this. It might be scary for some people. But you don’t judge people for what they look like. Don’t judge them by what you see.”

But, in a way, these homeless are often invisible in this boomtown, where there are many newcomers from the South. Some appear more focused on the size of their truck and their pay cheque than on the squatters who tell Langer there’s nobody there for them.

“This is the first time that anyone ever came to us,” is what Shaimaiyuk hears when she delivers boxes to them.

Those deliveries are not easy, because, she said, there’s no way to know who will be home when you can’t call or email ahead of time.

When Shaimaiyuk and Langer peer into the shacks, it’s like looking into a dark hole due to the residue left by camp stoves often lit overnight.

“There’s soot all over the wall. One shack I noticed you open the door and there’s a lot of soot on the door,” Langer said.

A man they know lives in a sealift crate with a camp stove for heat. Often at night he bumps into it and burns his hand, which he keeps bound up with a cloth.

Langer and Shaimaiyuk also know of a handful of people who live in abandoned vehicles where they have no heat, no way to cook, or any access to toilets or running water.

They suspected someone was living in a truck after noticing some refuse around the abandoned vehicle. So, they brought him fruit tins which didn’t require cooking and toilet paper: The man living there cried over the gesture.

“We must have gone there when he really needed it,” Shaimaiyuk said.

Shaimaiyuk and Langer sometimes bring donated treats—such as freshly-made bannock or baggies filled with candy bars, chips and instant noodles—not those often perishable and expensive foods subsidized for by Nutrition North Canada, which can be hard to cook and store, or country foods like Arctic char, seal and caribou that Inuit crave, but which remain costly for non-hunters in Iqaluit.

They often arrive with tasty calorie-heavy foods which are easy to warm up and provide comfort, like hot dogs and bread, or, as Shaimaiyuk calls it “the Inuk mix,” because it’s food that is “fast and easy to eat when you are hungry because all you need is the fire from the stove and good old ketchup.”

Shaimaiyuk, a stay-at-home mother and on-call worker at the elders home, also receives donations from local stores and people who read her posts on Facebook and decide to drop off food and clothes or, as one woman did, homemade cookies. She has also put out a call to local hunters who have meat to share and even people who might be willing to cut hair for free.

On Facebook, others commend these efforts, such as an Iqaluit woman who made the following comment to Shaimaiyuk in a post: “When I was living in a tent with my young children years ago. It was always hard. No freezer to keep food from spoiling. At times we wouldn’t have fuel to keep our tents warm. No water to bathe. And most of all we felt vulnerable. Mostly would be stray dogs. Didn’t have clean clothes often.

“I know the struggles so well. But what you’re doing doesn’t happen so often. I’m so proud of you and your aippaq [spouse] for doing this. It should make a difference. My gratitude isn’t described in words.”

The efforts by Shaimaiyuk and Langer also run counter to the view that Inuit, thrust off the land and into communities, have become overly reliant on public handouts and don’t want to volunteer. That’s although Inuit have traditionally shared food and fed each other and even included visitors in their generosity, just as Shaimaiyuk and Langer do today for Lewis, a Caribbean man marooned in the Arctic.

As Langer, who works for Nunavut’s power corporation, said, helping others “makes you feel more proud, good like you’re doing something for someone less fortunate that doesn’t have anything.”

“Someone that’s hungry, more hungry than your are, less better off that you are, so it makes me feel really good to help someone like that.”

But he’s frustrated because these people who live in such bad conditions seem to be forgotten.

“The government helps refugees, they move to Canada, they’re given a home,” Langer said. “That’s a good thing to do, but why not help these people? These people who live in a shack, give them place to live.”

He and Shaimaiyuk would like to start an organization so they can work to provide even more support to those they help and to others who still need assistance.

But if you want to help them now, you can send dry foods— not money— to P.O. Box 635, Iqaluit, Nunavut, X0A 0H0, or contact Shaimaiyuk directly on Facebook.

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