Montrealer helps the homeless with books, art supplies and the 'possibilities of what could be'

Exeko uses creativity — art and philosophy — as a motor of social transformation and as a way of inspiring and including marginalized people.

Non-profit Exeko uses art, philosophy to inspire marginalized people

James Galwey says his goal is to 'create a conversation' with the homeless. (Craig Desson/CBC)

On a cold November night, James Galwey is kneeling beside Gilles Roy, a homeless man perched a concrete bench inside the Bonaventure Metro station.

"You've read other things by D. H. Lawrence?" Galwey asks.

"Yes," Roy replies.

All evening Galwey has been visiting Metro stations, attempting to spark conversations about books, culture and ideas with the homeless people he meets there.

"Maybe for a brief moment … they'll start to think about the possibilities of what could be," he says.

Galwey is a street mediator with Exeko, a Montreal non-profit that uses art and philosophy to inspire creativity in marginalized people.

He drives around the city in a white van filled with books, pads, pens and reading glasses which he distributes to the homeless. 

"We can be a breath of fresh air and try and introduce new ideas."

Exeko uses a van to distribute books, papers, pens and other art materials to the homeless. (submitted by Exeko)

Galwey and volunteer Maxine Bouchard-Verdi rummage through the back of the Exeko van, dragging out a big plastic container heavy with books. Sharing the load, they haul it down the long staircase into the bowels of the station.

In the summer, Exeko streetworkers spend more time outdoors, but the cold pushes the homeless into the Metro stations, so Galwey and the volunteers follow them there.

Galwey strikes up a conversation with Claude Prenovost, who is bundled up in two winter jackets.

'I have to draw. I have to sing. I have to dance,' Claude Prenovost tells Exeko streetworker James Galwey. (Craig Desson/CBC)

"You're an artist, Claude," he tells him. According to Galwey, Prenovost used to paint murals.

"I have to draw," Prenovost tells him.

"I want to see you in your own studio," Galwey responds. "I want to see you with paints, and I want to see you painting."

Galwey says he does this work because he got a taste of being homeless as a teenager growing up in Britian.  He and his friends lived in a van and drove it around the south of England, panhandling to survive.

"You start to realize how people look at you when, let's say, you're not a part of the normal society."

James Galwey speaks with a homeless man outside Alexis Nihon shopping centre. (Craig Desson/CBC)

Around 9 p.m., Galwey and Bouchard-Verdi pack up and head back to the van with their load of books.

Tonight they've visited Bonaventure and Atwater Metro stations. They had planned to drive to the Old Brewery Mission as well, but the conversations they had at Bonaventure station ran long.

"If I've been in a bad mood or I'm a bit depressed when I start a shift … by the end of the shift I'm always in a really good mood," said Galwey.

"I've learned humility."

The street philosopher

4 years ago
Duration 2:39
Montreal non-profit Exeko uses art, philosophy to inspire marginalized people


Craig Desson


Craig Desson is a producer and journalist at CBC Montreal. He was born in Montreal and has lived in Ottawa, Toronto, Germany and Sierra Leone.


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