How front-line staff at the shelter have dealt with the outbreak and overcome challenges
The Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal (NWSM) has had to overcome several hurdles to adapt to the pandemic, and to continue to provide a safe home for Indigenous women in need.
While Executive Director Nakuset has normally been the one to represent the shelter to the public, The Concordian was given access to the shelter in order to report on the front-line workers who support the community.
“[The clients] trust us,” said Anita Metallic, residential support worker at the NWSM, a job that entails admitting new clients and managing services for them. The Native shelter is the only Indigenous women’s shelter in the city. Metallic explains that it’s a safe haven for the community.
“[At] a non-Native shelter, they don’t feel as comfortable, or even sometimes as welcomed.”
According to a survey by Statistics Canada, Indigenous women and children make up 70 per cent of clients in Indigenous shelters, and 20 per cent in non-Indigenous shelters.
In contrast, Indigenous women only represent four per cent of the population of women in Canada, and Indigenous children are eight per cent of the population of children.
Almost three quarters of Indigenous women who sought shelter did so because of abuse, and to protect their children from violence.
“I look at them as my sisters and as warriors … [the women are] incredibly strong and resilient to last that long. It’s one of the most rewarding jobs I’ve done,” said Metallic.
The NWSM building has four different levels. Bedrooms fill the top two floors, the main floor includes the kitchen, administration office, and socializing spaces, and the basement has some bedrooms and storage. In total, there are 13 private bedrooms.
“But right now we’re very limited because of COVID,” said Metallic.
Pre-pandemic, all the bedrooms could be safely occupied, and the shelter could hold up to 23 clients, with mothers able to bring their children. Now, the top floor, called the “hot floor,” is where new clients quarantine for two weeks before moving to their designated bedrooms. If all the quarantine rooms are occupied, the shelter cannot admit new clients.
Clients are housed for up to three months at the NWSM. During their stay, the women must look for permanent housing.
If no housing is found, staff can refer clients to another shelter. The NWSM has a three-months-in-six-months-out rule, meaning clients can return after six months outside of the shelter — but clients aren’t abandoned once they leave.
“We don’t just say, ‘okay, bye’ — we will make sure that they’re okay,” says Metallic. Staff keep in touch with the women to know if they need additional services, or if they should plan on welcoming them back.
Marina LeRoy, relief worker at the NWSM, says the shelter has experienced an increase in clients since the pandemic began.
“COVID has been a little bit harder for some families, and we’ve had a few more kids than maybe we would normally,” said LeRoy.
Even as other shelters closed during the beginning of the pandemic in March, the NWSM stayed open. Staff knew the high risk of contracting the virus at the time, but did not want to abandon the task of serving women who found themselves in difficult situations.
“We knew there was a really high probability we were going to get sick and we were comfortable with that,” said LeRoy, adding, “we feel this responsibility to stay open for the women and make sure that we can keep them safe.”
The risk of contamination was high not only because workers came in contact with several people in a closed environment, but because the shelter had no government support for equipment and cleaning services to appropriately accommodate their clients.
For two months, the shelter faced great challenges as they adapted to constantly changing health safety guidelines with little to no supplies. Four younger workers–who are at less risk of developing complications from the virus–worked at the shelter overtime. LeRoy was one of those staff members.
As with other industries, she describes how, in the beginning, they had no clear guidelines on how to deal with the virus. From navigating difficult traumas some of the women faced, some with suicidal thoughts confined in their room, and trying to help mothers with their children, Leroy said it was extremely difficult.
“It was a very isolating time,” she said.
Clients had to remain in their rooms at all times while staff members delivered meals to their doors three times a day. All of the services usually provided, like mental health support and help with personal needs like medical appointments, couldn’t be given from March to June.
“We were limited in the services we could actually provide for them, and I think a lot of us took that to heart because it felt like our mandate was not completely fulfilled,” said LeRoy, adding that, “it was heartbreaking.”
“It became a job where often we had to cater to basic needs and it was very difficult to kind of promote the womens’ well being and make sure that their mental health was okay,” said LeRoy.
It was only when an outbreak occurred in mid-May, two months after the start of the pandemic, that the requested supplies and services were provided. For two weeks, staff quarantined at home while clients were housed in a hotel.
Now, the shelter is running smoothly compared to the experience during the initial lockdown. Staff practice social distancing while moving around the shelter and there’s a limit to the number of people who can be in a room. There are curfews, specific mealtimes, and a “clean house” policy is enforced, with drug and alcohol use prohibited.
In the basement, the walk-in storage closet is lined with miscellaneous supplies, boxes and bags for the women. Among the most donated items are period products and bath supplies, and LeRoy says the shelter is always in need of good running shoes (in any size) and winter coats.
In fact, everything provided in the shelter is entirely funded by community donations. This year, all their fundraising efforts will be online.
One of the cooks at the shelter, Rhonda Beaulieu, says she has wanted to work at an Indigenous organization since moving to Montreal from Manitoba three years ago.
With over 15 months cooking experience at the shelter, Thompson’s motives are quite clear: “I want to serve my people … I know what they’re going through.”
Thompson said she’s been through an abusive marriage, but has since left that relationship. She says her experience has helped her to connect and relate with women who face the same hardships.
The shelter provides help for a variety of different needs, from medical appointments, filing for ID, help with youth protection services, mental health support, and more.
Having an advocate is fundamental to Indigenous women’s safety in several of these institutions, according to many of the workers at the shelter.
When asked about Joyce Echaquan’s death at Joliette hospital, LeRoy said no one was surprised, as there are “certain hospitals in Montreal we know to not bring clients to.”
“If I get in an ambulance and they tell me about the availability, I have to fight for them to go to different hospitals because I will not have a woman admitted in the hospital where we know that there’s discrimination and racism, because it’s really counterproductive to them actually getting the help that they need,” said LeRoy.
LeRoy has witnessed Indigenous women who are diagnosed with cancer adamantly refuse to go to the hospital. She has also witnessed this behaviour among women who have been sexually assaulted and need medical attention.
“Nothing can make them go to the hospital because of the discrimination that they faced and the violence that they face there,” said LeRoy.
Staff who accompany Indigenous women to medical appointments help to advocate for their needs and monitor their treatment. Even so, LeRoy has witnessed medical staff demean clients and refuse to give treatment.
“You hit so many barriers no matter how hard you work to promote their well being,” said LeRoy.
Women are also helped with any youth protection-related services they require. Family care worker Camille Panneton accompanies women to their appointments, and says Indigenous women also face obstacles in the youth protection system.
“I advocate for them. There’s a lot of problems and flaws in the system,” she said.
She makes sure mothers are treated equally. She’s witnessed the clients being mistreated and talked down to in a condescending and confrontational manner. Ultimately, she describes an environment where Indigenous women don’t receive a fair treatment.
“They [youth protection services] don’t respect their rights,” Panneton said.
Despite the challenges, staff work to provide for all the women’s needs.
On the day The Concordian visited the shelter, the residents had begun beading in the afternoon. Multicoloured beads were spread over the table, and while they worked on different projects, they spoke and shared with each other. There was a calm atmosphere as staff left the room.
“This is their time,” said Metallic, “we give them their space.”
Photographs by Christine Beaudoin. Feature image is an artwork found in the entrance of the shelter.