A secure place for Inuit women in distress

Half of the clients at the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal are Inuit — but their staff get little help from organizations in Nunavut and Nunavik.



MONTREAL — It’s a nondescript, unidentified brick building at a busy downtown intersection, but many Inuit women in distress know that the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal is a warm and secure place to spend the night.

“Montreal can be very lonely and cold,” said Thelma Nelson, the head counselor at the shelter. “We are safe, we are confidential, and people know where we are.”

The shelter provides a temporary home for any native woman who need a place to stay, although nearly half of the 324 clients who stayed at the shelter last year were Inuit.

While the average stay at the shelter is two weeks, some are there for just one night and others for up to three months.

Some come because they are homeless in the city, while others are fleeing home. Many are escaping violence and troubled living situations in the Montreal region or even in the North. They arrive alone or with their children. In many instances, they’re also pregnant.

They’re referred by social workers, the justice system, or youth protection authorities. Occasionally they just turn up at the door.

The 14 rooms, several of which have space for families, are clean and comfortable. Some are tidy, while others seem to show signs of lives that are still in disarray.

Shelter is no hotel

But the staff is quick to point out that the shelter is no hotel.

Residents are expected to pitch in with chores and observe a daily schedule of activities as well as curfew. They have to keep good behavior and refrain from drugs or alcohol.

During their stay at the shelter, women must also attend workshops on such topics as family violence, parenting and anger management.

The shelter also helps with practical issues, such as obtaining identification, welfare or housing.

“We need to build them up from the bottom up,” Nelson said.

Nelson said that most Inuit clients arrive at the shelter “with horrific pasts.” They’re also often fearful to share what they’ve experienced.

” ‘What are you going to do to me if I tell you?’ is what I hear,” she said.

Once they’re at the shelter, women can choose to tackle their addictions or even delve more deeply into the other problems in their lives. When women stay more than two days, counselors work with them to develop a healing plan.

“Our vision is to be a healing centre,” said Jean Stevenson, the shelter’s director. “We say, ‘our door is open to you if you’re willing to take the first step.’ ”

Once a month, the shelter brings in an elder or another woman whose experiences serve as a role model for the shelter’s residents.

The shelter has also received money from the Aboriginal Healing Foundation for a project called “Moving towards the seventh generation.” This new program, due to start up shortly, will increase the number and range of workshops at the shelter.

No Inuktitut counselors

The shelter’s services are intended to be offered with women’s “distinct cultural indentity and heritage in mind,” but right now the shelter presently has no Inuktitut speaking counselors.

But due to the high number of Inuit using the shelter, Stevenson would like more Inuit input and assistance. She’d welcome visits from Inuit health or social workers passing through the city and others with a message to share, such as gospel singers.

She’d willingly accept contributions of country food, soapstone, Inuktitut language materials, or travel assistance to help women to go back to the North.

Stevenson, like the to staff at the handful of other Montreal organizations who work with Inuit, has had limited contacts with health and social services organizations in Nunavik and Nunavut.

Communication is difficult because of language problems and a lack of common points of reference.

Many organizations in the North also seem to feel they’re the ones who should be supplying services to Inuit.

“But aboriginal people need to help each other,” Stevenson, who is Cree, said. “Aboriginal people have to extend a hand to each other, no matter where they’re from.”

For more information on the Native Women’s Shelter of Monreal, call 1-514-933-4688.

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