Family of Innu man who died near Montreal shelter says warming tent needs to stay

Organizers are calling on the city of Montreal to install a permanent shelter in Cabot Square as the city prepares to extend services at the Raphaël André Memorial Tent until December.

Groups call for permanent solution to support homeless population

Raphaël André's parents and siblings visited the Memorial tent on June 25. (Gabrielle Paul/Radio-Canada)

A warming tent in downtown Montreal viewed as key in supporting dozens of unhoused people will stay open for a little longer.

The Raphaël André Memorial Tent will stay open until Dec. 1 as community groups seek a permanent solution to servicing vulnerable people in Cabot Square.

In a statement to CBC, Fabienne Papin, a spokesperson for the city, said Montreal is "actively working" with community partners and the provincial government to meet the needs of Indigenous peoples experiencing homelessness.

"Regarding the tent, the city never spoke of dismantling it," she wrote. "It took the lead by proposing that the organization extend its services until Dec. 1 to give time to find lasting solutions." 

This is the fourth time the permit has been extended for the tent since it opened in Cabot Square on Feb. 2. Its previous closure date was June 30.

Community groups pushed for the city to open the tent to support the homeless population while Montreal was under a curfew.

It is named in honour of Raphaël André, an Innu man who was found dead near the Open Door shelter in January.

André family in disbelief

Five months after his death, Raphaël André's parents and younger sister, Carmen, say they don't understand how he could die steps from a shelter. 

The family travelled four hours to Montreal on Friday from the Matimekush-Lac John community in northern Quebec to see, for the first time, the spot where André was found. 

"What hurt me the most was when I turned the corner and saw where the washroom was, how close it was," Carmen André said.

Raphaël André's father, Daniel André, left, sister Carmen André and mother Suzanne Chemaganish say he would still be alive if the government prioritized homelessness. (Chloë Ranaldi/CBC)

André's mother Suzanne Chemaganish says she hopes a permanent tent would prevent a death similar to her son's from happening again. 

"We did everything to keep the virus away," Suzanne Chemaganish said, her voice breaking. "Why can't we help the homeless? ... I don't know how much money the government spent for those [pandemic] ads… but homeless people still exist."

'Too much of a need'

Alexandra Ambroise, co-ordinator of the memorial tent, says the shelter regularly supports more than 100 people per day on average despite the milder temperatures. The daily average was 30 people when the space opened in winter.

"It has to stay open, there's too much of a need," Ambroise said. "With word of mouth, more and more people are stopping by. They're already asking us, 'Who will protect me? Where will I go if the tent closes?'"

The Raphaël Memorial Tent in Cabot Square services more than 100 vulnerable people per day. (Chloë Ranaldi/CBC)

The tent can shelter up to 16 people overnight and accepts vulnerable people who might be inebriated.

Nakuset, a co-manager of Resilience Montreal who spearheaded the initiative, says community groups need financial help compensating security guards who keep the tent a culturally safe environment.

Currently, 14 security guards staff the tent between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m.

"We need to have people to work with a population that no one wants to work with and de-escalate the violence and take them aside to speak to them when they're freaking out," she said. "Most shelters in Montreal won't do that. They'd bar them for life."

with files from Chloë Ranaldi