Lizzie Saunders, dead at 36: the reality of living homeless in Montreal

"It is like quicksand"


Lizzie Saunders and her four-year-old son Prince on Sept. 21, three days before Saunders died of heart failure in Montreal. (PHOTO BY BARBARA MCDONALD)

Lizzie Saunders and her four-year-old son Prince on Sept. 21, three days before Saunders died of heart failure in Montreal. (PHOTO BY BARBARA MCDONALD)


MONTREAL—Lizzie Saunders was known among her friends and family for her over-the-top kuniks.

To her, if your nose or face didn’t hurt after Inuktitut kisses, you weren’t doing it right, says Barbara McDonald, the president of Tasiutigiit—a Montreal support group for cross-cultural Inuit and First Nations families—and the adoptive mother of Saunders’ four-year-old son Prince.

Of the 75 children McDonald has fostered or adopted over the past 45 years, Saunders was the only mother who would travel across the city to give McDonald a cart full of as much baby formula and diapers as she could muster.

Though she was unable to do it full time, Saunders was determined to help raise her son. She was always presentable and never intoxicated when visiting with Prince, McDonald said.

Saunders’ heart was big and loving, but it was not strong.

On Sept. 24, Saunders, 36 and originally from Kuujjuaq, died of heart failure just after leaving Montreal’s St. Luke’s hospital. She had told her friends that doctors had for some time been urging her to take it easy on her heart, and that she would soon need a pacemaker.

Saunders also struggled with alcoholism and addictions while trying to survive on the streets of Montreal, but, McDonald said, you wouldn’t know it by looking at her.

Being homeless never stopped Saunders from maintaining a bond with her children and doing all that she could to show it.

And Saunders did the same for the children of other women she knew from the streets, friends say. When McDonald gave her country foods, Saunders often shared that precious food from home with other women who hung out at Cabot Square, a popular gathering spot for Montreal Inuit.

“Even if she had just a few dollars, she was always giving,” said friend Eva Sharky, originally from Iqaluit, but now homeless in Montreal.

Another friend from the streets, Cape Dorset’s Akuluk Qatapik, fondly remembers how Saunders would shake the ponytail elastic out of her hair, wiggle her head and smile—a signal between friends to begin braiding each other’s hair.

Living on the streets made Saunders resilient and she helped other women stay positive, her friends say, but it also took its toll on her health.

Another friend, Stanislas Mailly, who has known Saunders for eight years, said she didn’t talk much about her health or other struggles. He said that is typical of Inuit he has met, surviving on Montreal streets.

“It is something that they don’t think about, to talk about, because they are living it,” Mailly said. “It is like quicksand.”

“She was always open to help other people, no matter how much challenges she was going through, like a team,” said Putulik Qumak, a distant cousin of Saunders from Cape Dorset. “She was always wanting to work together.”

McDonald knew that Saunders had once worked in Nunavik nickel mines and had tried to get a post-secondary education while in Montreal but eventually she found herself homeless and struggling with alcohol.

McDonald said that when she would ask her why she didn’t move back home to Kuujjuaq, Saunders said that it would be even worse for her up there.

She kept her worries to herself, friends say, unwilling to burden others.

“I only saw the side of Lizzie that Lizzie allowed because I think she didn’t want me to worry about the harshness of living on the street,” McDonald said.

Saunders would see McDonald and Prince nearly every month. The last time was just three days before Saunders’ death.

Prince had wanted to ask his biological mother out on a “date,” for the next day but unfortunately, they were unable to meet up. Friday and Saturday passed, and then Saunders’ heart gave out.

McDonald says the purpose of the date was to celebrate Prince’s adoption being finalized on August 15—it had been a four-year process. Saunders had heard the good news the last time they saw each other, on Sept. 21.

“I think that was a worry for her, that he hadn’t been adopted yet,” McDonald said. “And when I told her that was why we were there that day, getting his birth certificate, it was like a weight was just lifted off her.”

Since Saunders’ death, Prince has been going through mood swings as he copes with the loss of his biological mom, McDonald said.

“He had asked if we were going to see anaana today and I said no, anaana was flown back home and she is buried,” she said.

Throughout the interview, Prince digs up holes in the grass at the Cabot Square park, looking at pictures of “diggers” on McDonald’s cell phone and asking his adoptive mom to buy him a toy tractor. Right now he is going through a digging phase, she says.

McDonald’s dream is to take Prince north to meet his grandmother and siblings. She and Prince were unable to fly to Kuujjuaq in time for the funeral but McDonald knows how important it is to keep Indigenous family connections, even if the systems in place sometimes make that difficult.

“Looking back, it is like she knew it was coming to an end,” McDonald said, describing their hugs that last day as deeply loving, with Saunders giving Inuktitut kisses until her nose hurt.

“I think the last thing was him,” she said, referring to Prince. “It was the last thing that needed to be taken care of.”

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