Systems of Genocide: The Montreal Municipal Government's Unacceptable Response to the COVID-19 Crisis among the Indigenous Unsheltered Community

Current Events Jan 07, 2021

Written by Elizabeth Murphy

Cover image of the Notre-Dame Street encampment being dismantled in December 2020, taken by Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada.

The Montreal residents must hold our government accountable for their neglect of unsheltered individuals, many of whom identify as Indigenous, throughout the pandemic. While the unhoused community is at a higher level of risk to COVID-19, authorities have not provided adequate or appropriate spaces for these individuals to seek shelter, and have instated curfew laws without addressing these issues. This criminalizes the existence of unsheltered individuals in public spaces. As infections run rampant within unhoused communities, we must demand immediate action from our government to support our neighbors. Steps for action can be found at the end of this article.

There is currently a COVID-19 crisis among unhoused individuals in Montreal, particularly among those who identify as Indigenous. According to a newsletter from the Montreal Indigenous Community Network, the positivity rate approaches 80% within the Indigenous unsheltered community. Near McGill University’s downtown campus, the Open Door Shelter has experienced a massive outbreak with 30 of the 70 clients who were tested having positive results on Dec. 31. Many shelters who serve the unsheltered community in Montreal risk closure because of the rampant spread of COVID-19, leaving many unhoused individuals without a place to sleep. Even though many shelters currently remain open, they are forced to work at reduced capacity and unable to support many of their clients. Resilience Montreal can only provide shelter to 20% of the clients that they were previously able to support during the pandemic, meaning the remaining 48 clients find themselves without access to a warm shelter.

Those who have tested positive for COVID-19 cannot always be contacted or identified, so there are many unhoused individuals who are in shelters or on the streets who do not know they are infected and do not have a viable space to self-isolate. Additionally, with the reinstatement of a curfew law in Quebec, it will become illegal for individuals to be outdoors and in public spaces. However, the government has not made it clear how they intend to provide shelter for unhoused individuals so they are not in public spaces between 8pm and 5am during the period ranging from January 9th to February 8th.

Regardless of what Premier Francois Legault said in a news conference on January 6th, currently there are simply not enough safe, warm spaces available for the unsheltered community — with these laws, their existence is criminalized. The government must act right now to create spaces for the unsheltered community before curfew laws commence January 9th.

Shelters and community organizers have called for immediate action from the Quebec government through support for shelter systems and additional staff for these facilities, but these demands have not been answered. There are calls for additional staffing within shelters as well as at COVID-19 self-isolation facilities created by the Health Ministry for the unhoused community in the Royal Victoria Hospital. The self-isolation facility has existed throughout the pandemic, but increasing rates of positivity among the unsheltered have forced fast expansion of the operation as it reaches capacity. These staff should treat the unhoused community with respect like any other patient at a hospital facility, and particularly with the Indigenous unsheltered community provide culturally appropriate care. There are systemic barriers to accessing medical care for Indigenous individuals; for those residing in urban areas where there is access to hospital facilities these barriers are most notably prejudice and racism. Both of these issues must be addressed in order for these medical facilities to operate in a productive manner. Due to a history of systemic violence against Indigenous individuals in Canada, there is a large level of mistrust of Canadian systems, which are created foundationally with western (white settler) ideals of medicine and best practice. In order to provide appropriate care to these communities, Indigenous voices must be at the forefront of decision making within facilities and Indigenous individuals should receive treatment in the language of their choice, requiring access to translators and health advocates who speak Indigenous languages. In order for Indigenous individuals to have autonomy over their medical choices, they must have an understanding of the treatments to which they are consenting.

Earlier this year, at the pandemic’s onset, many elderly care facilities in the province experienced high positivity rates. At that time, the army was deployed to assist in managing the outbreaks in many care facilities in Quebec. Unfortunately, the outbreak among the unsheltered population has not been met with the same level of action. The disease itself as well as government action has disproportionately and systematically harms unsheltered individuals because of preexisting institutional barriers and current laws and regulations. Many unsheltered individuals have pre-existing conditions which make them more likely to get COVID-19, and the nature of living in public spaces means that these individuals have a higher number of daily contacts. Specifically among the Indigenous individuals, colonial legacies greatly affect their health due to issues of pollution and food insecurity or scarcity.

The City of Montreal’s underwhelming response manifests most outrageously in their repressive actions against encampments of unhoused individuals. These instances included disposing of unsheltered individuals’ winter gear and tents at the Milton-Parc intersection in November as well as the removal and confiscation of tents at various encampments around Montreal throughout December, most notably the Notre-Dame Street encampment. The inhabitants of these tents were largely Indigenous individuals, particularly at the Milton-Parc intersection. The city cites these confiscations as actions to ensure safety, however the safety of these individuals was greatly compromised by their inability to seek shelter. As unsheltered individuals are unable to access warm spaces like restaurants and indoor malls during freezing conditions due to COVID-19 regulations, these tents served as a space for shelter from the cold. While the city does fund shelters and alternative housing for unsheltered individuals, there is insufficient space to shelter all individuals, and some chose not to use these systems for various reasons including restrictive facility rules and fears of COVID-19 transmission. By disbanding encampments and confiscating housing materials, the government took away these individuals' agency over their living situation.

The current government neglect and violence against the Indigenous unsheltered community fits into a larger history of Indigenous genocide in Canada. It is no mistake that authorities have responded inadequately. Historically, the government has conducted forced sterilization of Indigenous women and land seizures of Indigenous spaces, as well as limited individual rights of Indigenous people, among many other heinous laws and actions against Indigneous peoples. Through directives like the instatement of residential schools and the Sixties Scoop, the Canadian government has worked to explicitly remove Indigenous culture, practices, and traditions — as well as Indigenous peoples themselves — from society. Beginning in 1880, the Canadian government alongside Catholic churches opened residential schools in an effort to force the assimilation of Indigenous children into settler Canadian society. Children in residential schools were entirely isolated from their families and culture as well as physically and sexually abused. It is estimated that 150,000 Indigenous children were forced into the residential school system, with over 6,000 deaths due to abdominal conditions including malnutrition and predisposal to disease, as well as abuse. Furthermore, in the 1960s, local governments lacked funding to support Indigenous children within their homes, so rather than supporting an Indigenous family through issues of poverty, they removed the children and rehoused them. To remove children from their homes also required social workers to have less training in working with Indigenous communities, as they removed children rather than providing culturally appropriate relief to families. Forced removal of Indigenous children from their homes separated them from Indigenous cultures, as they were often re-housing with non-Indigenous families. Indigenous children had a wide range of experience after adoption, some experiencing abuse in their homes. Many children faced life long issues involving “loss of cultural identity to low self-esteem and feelings of shame, loneliness and confusion” (Canadian Encyclopedia) due to their separation from Indigenous culture. Instead of creating a system to support Indigenous families, the government neglected their needs and committed cultural genocide. Both residential schools and the Sixties Scoop created intergenerational trauma due to the violence endured and the deliberate elimination of Indigenous culture and identity.

The violence against Indigenous unsheltered individuals is not an isolated event; it, like many other acts of government directed neglect and violence, have deep rooted histories in settler Canadian politics and society which have lasting effects today. Outside the scope of the pandemic, Indigenous individuals in Canada face issues of lack of access to health care, medical mistreatment, pollution deliberately situated near Indigenous communities, pipeline construction through Indigenous lands, criminalization and police brutality of Indigenous individuals, and systematic blocking from access to necessities such as food and use of waterways through licensing systems. The Canadian government was created in a way which excludes Indigenous individuals from basic rights and continuously neglects these communities. As understood through the case of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, the government and settler Canadian society as a whole is destructive towards Indigenous culture and neglectful of Indigenous individuals. Between 1980 and 2012, an estimated 4,000 Indigenous women and girls went missing or were murdered in Canada, however due to law enforcement and government inaction women and girls continued to go missing or be murdered without action. In 2019, the Canadian government completed an investigation into the matter, concluding that their indifference to violence against Indigenous women was an act of genocide.

Canada has and continues to fail Indigenous communities, and by neglecting to act in support of the unhoused Indigenous community in Montreal, the Canadian system continues to neglect this community and futher enact genocide. The imminent danger that COVID-19 poses for unsheltered Indigenous individuals and the shelter system in Montreal must be met with action from both the government and the community.

There are many ways you as an individual can take action in support of our Indigenous unhoused neighbors, including demanding action from Mayor Valérie Plante, Health and Social Services Minister Christian Dubé, and Premier Francois Legault, donating requested items or money to Indigenous-focused organizations in the city, volunteering your time at shelters or other organizations that provide services to the local Indigenous community, and assisting at the Royal Victoria COVID-19 self-isolation unit for unhoused individuals. Many of our unsheltered neighbors are not able to receive services from shelters and other organizations due to capacity limits and exhaustion of resources, so take time to speak with the unhoused community on the street and ask what they currently need. Direct support to unsheltered individuals can come in the form of drinks, food, winter gear, and cash, but it is important to discuss with an individual what their needs are if they have any, as this will allow them to improve their livelihood on their own terms.

How to contact Valérie Plante:

How to contact Francois Legault:

How to contact Christian Dubé:

Some organizations to support right now:


Cover image source: