Inuk woman, 61, found dead near Montreal construction site was a 'lovely soul'
Homeless advocates say more needs to be done to help Indigenous people living on city streets
Elisapie Pootoogook often came to Montreal for medical treatment from Salluit, one of Quebec's northernmost communities, nearly 2,000 kilometres from the city.
"She was a lovely soul. She would have these really cute sayings," said David Chapman, executive director of Resilience Montreal, who knew her for about eight years.
"If she was excited about something, she would say, 'Oh my stars, oh my stars.'"
Pootoogook was found dead Saturday morning near a construction site on René-Lévesque Boulevard, not far from the Atwater Avenue intersection. She was 61.
Investigators determined that the woman was not the victim of a crime and the case was transferred to the coroner's office for further investigation, said Montreal police spokesperson Const. Caroline Chèvrefils.
Chèvrefils would not speculate on the cause of death, saying the case is now in the hands of the coroner.
Dodging security at Atwater Metro
Chapman said it could have been medical, like cardiac arrest, or Pootoogook could have died of hypothermia.
What he does know is she was likely seeking warmth, as she would often stay in the Atwater Metro station for as long as she could — dodging security that has been tightened since the pandemic, he said.
She would move with others between the station and Cabot Square, a common gathering place for unhoused Indigenous people.
"It appears on this occasion, she went a little further than the park and made her way to the condo development," he said.
The construction site where Pootoogook's body was found is the former Montreal Children's Hospital.
It is being transformed into a residential complex of more than 1,000 rental and condo units.
Advocates who work with people experiencing homelessness in the area say the development project is an example of how the neighbourhood is changing.
They say it is already challenging for vulnerable people in the area to access services.
More should be done, advocates say
Chapman said more should be done in Montreal to help ensure people don't die like Pootoogook did.
"You looked at her struggle, and just wondered why there couldn't be more justice and dignity for Elisapie," he said.
Chapman said Pootoogook often came to Montreal for medical treatment.
She would occasionally seek assistance from Resilience Montreal, a non-profit day shelter situated on the corner of Atwater and Sainte Catherine Street. The organization offers food, a place to sleep, clean clothes and support.
Chapman said he helped her return home up north a few times.
"I had the sense that she was often torn between two worlds. Life was difficult for her in the north and life was difficult for her in the south. So it was a question of which difficult place to be," he said.
Building is needed, Nakuset says
Nakuset, executive director of the Native Women's Shelter of Montreal, said the cold weather is moving in fast and she is very concerned about what will happen this winter.
There is a warming tent in Cabot Square, but it isn't enough and a permanent building is needed, she said.
This has been under discussion for a long time, she said, but opening a new space far from the square won't do as people won't make the trip.
"We need to have a shelter in the Cabot Square area that is open at night, that lets people in as they are and supports them," she said.
There's an increasing number of Indigenous people gathering in the area, living on the streets, said Nakuset, who described the situation as "disaster waiting to happen."
The newly elected Projet Montréal administration will double the funding dedicated to combating homelessness, bringing the total to $6 million, said Catherine Cadotte, a city spokesperson
She said the city will develop 1,200 units dedicated to people experiencing homelessness or who are at risk of homelessness. Transitional housing with 23 units will be built for Indigenous people, she added.
"Our administration has worked tirelessly to leave no one behind during the pandemic, in particular by supporting projects intended for Indigenous people," Cadotte said in a statement.
"We will continue to work alongside public health, community organizations and the government of Quebec to adequately respond to needs of vulnerable people in Montreal."
Update Feb. 17, 2022: CBC has removed information from this article regarding the condo development where the body was found, since it was not directly relevant to the death.
with files from Sharon Yonan-Renold and Rebecca Ugolini