Life in the dark: A blind woman's experience living undocumented in Montreal

Marcia has lived in Montreal since 1981, working without documentation as a nanny and later as a caretaker for the elderly. Then she lost her eyesight.

For decades, Marcia worked under the table as a nanny and caretaker. Then she lost her eyesight

An undocumented woman looks out of a window in Los Angeles. In Montreal, people without documentation continue to face challenges despite a new sanctuary city designation. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

Marcia can still remember her first paycheque after arriving in Montreal in 1981: $70 for the week.

Originally from the Caribbean, she has lived in the city ever since, holding down jobs as a nanny and a caretaker for the elderly, getting paid under the table, often for far less than minimum wage.

Early on, she reached out to an immigration lawyer, in the hopes of eventually becoming a citizen, but the process was confusing and the cost prohibitive given her modest income.

Her perilous existence grew even more difficult in 2014, she told CBC in a phone interview this week.

Struggling with glaucoma and diabetes and unable to access medical care, her eyesight began to fail. She stopped working full time, and took on part-time jobs cleaning homes.

A year later, she completely lost her eyesight and, unable to pay rent, was kicked out of her apartment. 

Now, she lives in a one-room studio and relies on the kindness of a group of volunteers to pay her bills and groceries. 

"It's quite a challenge knowing you have no access, no benefits," said Marcia, 57. CBC has agreed to use a pseudonym to protect her identity, given her fear of being deported.

Marcia will be participating in a march on Sunday with Solidarity Across Borders, a group calling for the regularization of all people living without legal status

Advocates say Marcia's experience reflects the challenges facing thousands of other undocumented people in the city, who struggle to access secure employment, healthcare, education and housing.

A true sanctuary city?

When Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre declared earlier this year that Montreal was a "sanctuary city," Marcia was optimistic.

Coderre, a former federal immigration minister, said the designation would lead to substantive changes in the way the city treated people without status. 

"We have the expertise. We know the situation on the ground," he said at the time. 

Mayor Denis Coderre backed a motion earlier this year declaring Montreal a sanctuary city. (Charles Contant/CBC)
The declaration included a commitment for undocumented people to access city services, including municipal housing, without fear of being detained or deported.

It also called on the Quebec government, which is responsible for the provincial immigration, to ensure access to health care, emergency services and lodging.

But any change has been slow to come for Marcia in the months since, as she struggles to adapt to life in the dark.

Finally, last week, after more than a year of lobbying and pressure from local advocates, Marcia said she got word from the Montreal Association for the Blind (MAB) that it will provide her with support, despite not having proper documentation.

CIUSSS West-Central Montreal, which oversees the MAB, declined to comment directly on her case, but noted that "in order to receive specialized health care services, one has to have a valid RAMQ (medicare) card."  

Emmanuelle Paciullo, a spokesperson for the organization, added that a request can be made through the province on "humanitarian" grounds.

The immigration policies of the Trump administration have prompted Canadian cities to consider offering sanctuary to undocumented migrants. (Jeff Chiu/Associated Press)

More changes coming, city says

Anie Samson, vice-chairman of the city's executive committee, acknowledged progress has been slow when it comes to truly making Montreal a sanctuary city, but she said the Coderre administration remains committed.

"We are taking care of what we can do, but we want to talk with others about the responsibilities," she said Tuesday, on hand for the opening of a private clinic where treatment will be provided to people with no healthcare overage. 

"I think together we are going to do something. We cannot be a sanctuary city like this, just because we say it. We have to put in place some programs like what we are doing right now."

Despite not having status, Marcia believes that after years of working in the city — and paying sales tax — she should be entitled to the benefits afforded others.

She's in the process of applying for permanent residency on humanitarian grounds. 

"I did pay tax in different ways — I paid sales tax," she said, adding, "I'm hoping for changes for me."

With files from CBC's Sarah Leavitt