Charity Begins at Home: Helping Hands in Montreal

How To Not Feel Bad About Enjoying Life While People Around You Suffer! The Unspoken Hardship of “Reclaiming Public Spaces.”

I know, the title of this article is counterintuitive! It eats at your moral consciousness even though the truth is, It’s exactly what you try and do, as an act of survival of course!
We are all guilty of carrying on with our lives unmoved by the suffering of those around us. We don’t need to see pictures of starving children in the desert to know that we are not doing enough, we just have to open our front door, or for some of us in the nicer neighbourhoods, take a walk across town. At the same time, we must acknowledge the reality that the scale of poverty, destitution and misery is so high that if we as individuals were moved by all the stories we heard, we would actually become more powerless because it never ends.

Last Sunday I went to a new “park” called Cabot Square outside my church on Atwater and St Catherine that had just been re-opened after a $6.3million, one year renovation. I must say I was extremely disappointed.

cabot square

As I read up on the “transformation,” something didn’t sit well with me regarding the earlier comments of the Mayor of Montreal, Dennis Coderre, that this renovation was about reclaiming public spaces. He said, “It’s not about pushing out people…It’s to be inclusive, to outreach, to build bridges. We need to revitalize the area that wasn’t being used.” But as those of us who passed there regularly well know, and as highlighted here “the square is well-used, but generally by a population of homeless or otherwise impoverished people. It remains a popular destination for members of those groups wishing to drink alcohol outdoors.” Unfortunately, these improvised people are overwhelmingly of Aboriginal descent.

The plight of Aboriginals in Canada is heart wrenching to hear and to witness. After spending a year in high school in Saskatchewan, Canada whose Aboriginal population totals 16%, I came to understand life for them as one big struggle despite all the initiatives and government programsestablished exclusively for them. They have a third world existence while living in the first world! But like most other people, every Sunday on my way to church I just walked by hearing them scream and shout at each other and passers-by, and as the park closed for a year for the renovations, I quickly forgot about them. That is, till last Sunday when I ventured to sit in the newly gentrified park with lots of other “regular people,’ all enjoying the peace and tranquility. It seemed the space really had been reclaimed!

So whathappened to all those desolate and seemingly unlovable people that were once there. In “reclaiming the public space” had the city just pushed the problem to somewhere else? Were people not still suffering but just not in such a visible place so as to hurt our sensibilities?) As I left the park I wondered what I could do? A few days later I realised that staying away from the park would not be the answer but I need to become a regular user of the park while remembering the plight of those who were its old residents. That’s when I started researching the initiatives developed for the park with the “inclusiveness” in mind that the mayor had previously mentioned. At the park, there will be movie nights, swing dancing and every Friday will be aboriginal day. The Montreal Urban Aboriginal Community Strategy Network was also established to use the park to empower aboriginals and a little Café run by the community group L’Itineraire will be located at the park, which aims to help marginalized and homeless people find employment.

Besides running café’s, L’Itineraire is a Montreal based publishing house that prints magazines that the homeless people can sell on the street. We have all seen these street sellers, but I have never given them a second thought. In London where I was born, on every street corner someone is selling a copy of ‘The Big Issue” so I know it’s a good business model but I never once bat an eyelid at those selling it nor had I ever bought a copy. But here I am suddenly touched by a 2011 article in Montreal’s The Metropolitan Newspaper by Bill Economou, a homeless man who writes regularly for L’Itineraire who explained how those who are determined can progress from selling magazines to writing articles in the magazines. He said of the first time he published an article, “it was extremely valorizing experience to see my name and words in print…eventually some of the people I met at Atwater market would stop to tell me they had enjoyed my article.”As a writer I can relate to Bills sentiments. But I recognize the great leap that will be necessary to support these men and women to become people who are empowered to think that they have a voice that people would want to hear. For that I encourage the work of L’Itineraire in restoring the pride of so many people in our city.

This Friday July 17th at 7pm Repurcussion Theatre Company will be doing their rendition of “Twelfth Night or What You Will” at Cabot Square as part of their Shakespeare in the Park series. “Twelfth Night is the perfect play for inspiring dialogue amongst our contemporary audience” and promises to ask intriguing questions about gender roles, identity and attraction in a hilarious and tear inducing way. As this will be a free event, why not come for a nice night out like my husband and I are doing and maybe donate the money you would have spent on a show at Place des Arts to one of Montreal’s organizations like L’Itineraire, supporting the homeless and Aboriginals in Montreal. This way, you too can try “not feel bad about enjoying life!”

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