Aatami “outraged” at anti-Inuit remarks made by residents of Montreal district

Opposition to relocation of Nunavik House may be softening

By SARAH ROGERS

Pita Aatami, the president of Makivik Corp., said June 2 that the Inuit of Nunavik are “outraged” by recent comments made by residents of the Villeray borough of Montreal and their mayor, Ani Samson, about the proposed relocation of an Inuit patient home to a site in their neighbourhood.

“I was personally offended by remarks made by some citizens and mayor Anie Samson. I wish for her to make amends and to apologize for her comments… No nation can pretend that it is perfect, but I firmly believe that we deserve respect,” Aatami said in a press release.

The controversy blew up after the Nunavik health board and the Montreal health authority proposed the use of a former Chinese hospital at 7500 St. Denis Street in Villerary to house a 150-bed hostel for Nunavik patients who travel with their escorts to Montreal for health care.

Some residents of the Villeray area reacted by posting a website entitled Danger-Imminent that made numerous allegations about Inuit who visit Montreal.

“This project will lead to a major increase in crime in your neighbourhood,” said the website, which was taken down following complaints about its racist content.

The Makivik Corp. is also upset at remarks made by the borough mayor, who said “obviously incidents will happen. Telling me that there would be no incivility is a lie.”

But now, the position taken by local residents and municipal politicians appears to be softening.

“We feel badly that the Inuit community was caught up in this discussion that was supposed to be between the [Montreal health] agency and the borough,” said Marisa Celli, a spokeswoman for the Villeray-Saint-Michel-Park-Extension borough office. “No one was brought up to speed on this project — the agency did not do their job.”

The lack of information led to speculation about the nature of the project, Celli said.

At the same time, the neighbourhood group has posted a new website called “Rapprochement Imminent” or “imminent reconciliation” at www.rapprochement-imminent.com, which offers links to information on Nunavik, presumably to sensitize the local population to the region.

Still, the Villeray-Saint-Michel-Park-Extension borough and its residents continue to fight off accusations of racism.

Earlier this week, news stories in La Presse presented “not-in-my-back-yard” reports on the project that were not flattering to local residents.

Some residents in the borough appeared to be under the impression that the former Chinese hospital was being renovated into a treatment centre for people with alcohol and drug addictions, rather than a boarding home for regular medical patients, Celli said.

About 50 residents showed up to a Villeray borough meeting June 1, some to complain about the new residence and alleged that it would attract crime to the neighbourhood.

But despite the many opposed to the proposal, Celli insists her community is open.

And she said that Anie Samson is sorry for any comments that she made as mayor that could have offended the Inuit community in Montreal and Nunavik.

In the end, it’s not the borough’s decision whether the project will go ahead or not, Celli said, but she said its officials are prepared to work with the city and provincial health department, which will make the final decision.

But the recent debate has likely slowed plans to re-locate Nunavik House.

Staff at the existing Nunavik House located in agree it’s time to move. Right now, it’s located in an area of St-Jacques Street West that’s considered dangerous and exposes patents to drugs, alcohol and violence.

But Annie Hickey, who attended the Villeray borough meeting, told APTN that shouldn’t happen until more people know about the project.

“People are also afraid of what it will be like to go there… just as much as the [Villeray] neighbourhood is afraid of Nunavik House coming here,” Hickey said.

“I think both sides are a little bit scared because there’s not enough information.”

Jeannie May, executive director of the Nunavik regional board of health and social services, admits the Nunavik health board withheld details about the proposed move because they were waiting to secure funding from Quebec.

The former Chinese hospital, which belongs to Quebec’s health department, would require about $12 million in renovations to make it suitable for a patient and escort residence.

The building would accommodate 150 beds and a mini-cultural centre to showcase Inuit art and culture.

Since the debate over the proposed renovation heated up this week, David Levine, head of the Montreal health services, said municipal officials should have received better information.

Now Levine has offered to hold a public consultation in the Villeray borough and keep the community informed about the details of an impact study that will be carried out on the site.

But while talks around the project continue, Nunavik’s Inuit are still without a safe place to can call home while in the city for medical treatment.

A woman from Nunavik, who preferred not to give her name, just returned north from escorting her father for care in Montreal. It was her first time staying at Nunavik House, and she said she quickly learned not to leave the centre alone.

“I was scared to even go the depanneur,” she said. “A guy driving down the street stopped and asked me to have a drink with him.”

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