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Life of L’Ange

by Meagan Godin October 26, 2021
Life of L’Ange

From a man who once lived on the streets to one who now gives back to his community in any way he can, Gaëtan Ouellet’s life inspires him to support those in need

Trigger Warning: The following includes mentions of suicide, addiction, and mental illness.

A life of ups and downs best describes a man who, through the toughest of hardships, continues to keep his head above water. Someone who strives to be a positive influence to those around him who are struggling, as he once was. From being someone who got offered a helping hand when he needed it most to now being that person who lends a hand, Gaëtan Ouellet remains a man of perseverance and humility.

Ouellet is well known in the Old Port of Montreal, and more specifically known by the name “Ange.” His nickname grew out of his previous acts of generosity in parking lots. Beginning in the mid ‘90s — back when parking meters could be filled at individual machines set up for each spot —  Ouellet would take pleasure in filling them out for people before parking security showed up to issue them a ticket. When car owners noticed Ouellet saving them from a ticket, they would ask for his name.

“I’m just a guardian angel looking out for people. They call me Gaë-tange,” he would reply.

Those who discovered who their parking meter angel was often thanked him by offering small gestures, such as meals, money, or cigarettes.

People’s small offerings were not the motivators behind his actions. Although people’s kindness meant the world to him, all he expected was a simple “thank you.” Simply put, Ouellet enjoys helping others, and that’s that.

Growing up in Gaspésie on the east coast of Quebec, Ouellet had a rural upbringing. At the age of six, his father moved their family to Montreal after having trouble finding work in their area and he has been here ever since.

Ouellet’s early adult life began to take off when he took a welding course. He had an interest in the technique behind the craft and had studied it at a trade school in Saint-Henri. He ended up earning a steady income for five years as a welder and then moved on, working at Québecor binding magazines for 23 years. Things were looking up for Ouellet, until everything suddenly came crumbling down.

Looking back, the year 1994 marks a difficult time in Ouellet’s life. In the span of one week, he had lost his job due to layoffs and came home to find his roommate’s body —who was also a childhood friend of 32 years — hanging in their apartment. This line of horrific events led Ouellet into a dark cycle of drinking and heavy drug consumption of heroin and cocaine. Four months after being taken in by his family and friends as a temporary solution, Ouellet found himself alone, homeless, and on the streets of the Old Port of Montreal.

“Living on the street, you need a vice to forget you’re living on the street,” said Ouellet.

The homeless community of Montreal was never a stranger to Ouellet. Growing up, he would spend most of his free time around the Old Port. Ironically, years before finding himself homeless, Ouellet came to know an elderly homeless man whose health was in poor condition. He recalls the man being concerned about what would happen to his physical spot on the street once he was gone. Ouellet remembers the man sharing that if ever Ouellet was to be in tough times, his spot would become available soon as the man knew he wouldn’t be here much longer.

The elderly man’s spot soon became Ouellet’s first home on the streets of Montreal.

“It’s funny how life works,” said Ouellet. “It makes you realize we are not that different from one another.”

No one is prepared for the moment when they realize that bartering for their next meal is one of their only options for food. They don’t expect to find themselves desperately picking through ashtrays on the city sidewalk in hopes of finding a cigarette that isn’t fully smoked. Living on the streets, Ouellet was faced with this hard-hitting reality. For nine years, he was begging strangers to get by.

It’s often easier to think of the hardships that we face in life as temporary situations. Ones that won’t last long. For Ouellet, along with many others who find themselves in a similar situation, finding their next meal or having to endure weather of all kinds, lasted longer than he would have liked.

His days under the influence of heavy drugs and alcohol were spent begging for change at traffic lights and slurring words at passersby. The reaction on people’s faces was telling. They were not willing to help someone in an intoxicated state. Instead, he realized that they would be more willing to give to someone who was looking to help themselves. He knew his behaviour was not an effective way to appeal to people’s sympathy and generosity.

Ouellet takes out the garbage for a Vieux Montreal business, Montreal, Quebec, October 4, 2021. In exchange for services such as this one, “l’Ange du Vieux Montreal” is fed. CHRISTINE BEAUDOIN/The Concordian

Over the years, Ouellet learned that if this was to be his lifestyle for the time being, he had to make some changes in order to survive. Once he was clean and no longer being consumed by his vices, Ouellet decided to offer his free time to performing small tasks which became a new way to meet his needs of meals and clothing.

Gaëtan Ouellet, also known as “l’Ange du Vieux Montreal”, cleans up dust and spider webs from a restaurant’s window, Montreal, Quebec, October 4, 2021. CHRISTINE BEAUDOIN/The Concordian

On an average day, Ouellet can be found spending the better part of his time lending people a helping hand on Saint-Paul St. in Montreal’s Old Port. From brooming store fronts, washing windows, to shoveling walkways during the winter months, Ouellet’s acts of generosity are done with nothing asked in return.

From 2007 onwards, Ouellet began performing odd jobs for local businesses. Every now and then, he brings in garbage bins and occasionally fills in for dishwasher duty. While Ouellet may not be employed by anyone in particular, the 12 clients that he helps out from time to time provide him with food and clothing in exchange for his services.

Ouellet, Old Montreal’s “Angel”, takes out recycling bags from an Old Montreal alleyway, October 4, 2021. Some mornings, Gaetan wakes up early to do his rounds of trash removal in the area. CHRISTINE BEAUDOIN/The Concordian

Living as a homeless person, he came into contact with several influential people, including celebrities such as Carlos Santana, by chance, through mutual friends. Judges, lawyers and restaurant owners like Chuck Hughes are also acquaintances Ouellet has formed bonds with. Ouellet’s down-to-earth and friendly personality even got him invited out to lunch by judges who were looking for company during their lunch break. He noticed his presence on the street made a difference. On the odd day when he didn’t follow his usual routine, familiar faces would ask him why they had missed him and where he had been.

Notably, 2021 marks 19 years since Ouellet got sober. He attributes his success in getting clean to a good friend, now a lawyer, who he met while living on the streets. When he could no longer stand to see him in this state, Ouellet’s newfound friend called an ambulance so he could get admitted to the hospital for help; the first step taken on the road to recovery.

This lawyer friend paid for Ouellet’s four month stay at the Louis-H. Lafontaine psychiatric hospital, which got Ouellet clean and provided medication for his health issues.

It is also thanks to this lawyer friend that he now has a government-subsidized apartment to come home to, as well as a place to offer others to stay if they need a roof over their head and a good night’s rest.

Despite no longer living on the streets, Ouellet still gets up everyday to support those within his community, whether they be homeless, business owners, or just people passing by.

The sun rises over Old Montreal, the place Ouellet, “Angel”, calls home, October 4, 2021. CHRISTINE BEAUDOIN/The Concordian

In the fall of 2020, Ouellet began devoting his free time to residents of the Notre-Dame Street camping site because of the large volume of people who continued to struggle during the COVID-19 pandemic. Along with the help of volunteers, he aided in distributing donated goods, such as clothes and food. Eventually, they managed to find long-term homes for 16 people at the campsite, providing them with an affordable rented space when sharing the cost amongst groups of two.

Ouellet recently got contacted on Sept. 19 by the Old Brewery Mission who provide services to the homeless in Montreal. He was asked to help them out given how he’s familiar with the community in need and could make them feel more comfortable in accepting the help. He went out to the corner of Berri and Sainte-Catherine St. to help homeless citizens in the area. The team focused on preparations for upcoming weather changes, so heavier jackets and boots were distributed in addition to access to a barber and foot care services for those in need.

As someone who once lived that reality, Ouellet knows first hand the needs of people living on the street. Access to foot care and acceptable personal hygiene resources are as necessary as warm clothes and appropriate footwear. It’s this type of knowledge that Ouellet feels thankful to have when lending a helping hand to those in need.

Ouellet places a mat in front of Tommy’s cafe for people to sit on in Old Montreal, Quebec, October 4, 2021. CHRISTINE BEAUDOIN/The Concordian

Ouellet is the proud father of three daughters. While they have been in and out of his life during his time on the streets, his bond with them has grown now that he is clean. He enjoys the time with his six grandchildren who brighten up his days. He feels fortunate to have gotten sober. He says that he now feels like he can fully appreciate and enjoy the years ahead with his family. What does the future have in store for his retirement years? Ouellet doesn’t have a set plan just yet.

Ouellet says that he is happy where he is now and is grateful for the opportunity to help others. Lending a helping hand to those he sees sleeping on park benches for nights at a time fulfills him with a sense of gratitude.

Life has its ups and downs for every individual in any community. Some people’s challenges may be more visible than others. Kindness is universal and can go a long way in impacting how someone’s story plays out. In rising above hardships, we have the ability to look beyond those less than perfect times in our lives with compassion. It is that compassion that allows us to put ourselves in others’ shoes. Ouellet reminds us that everyone has a story and, more importantly, that everyone is human.

“Are we really that different? I look at the human side of every person that I meet whether they be officials such as police officers, judges or just humans that need support. They are all the same in my eyes, I help everyone in good faith,” said Ouellet.

 

Visuals by Christine Beaudoin

 

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