After 12 years at the helm of Montreal's Old Brewery Mission, Matthew Pearce is retiring

An outspoken advocate for homeless people, Pearce was awarded the Governor General's Meritorious Service Cross on July 2.

An outspoken advocate for the homeless, Pearce was awarded the Governor General's Meritorious Service Cross

Matthew Pearce, CEO of the Old Brewery Mission, has announced he will retire from his position as of September. (Kate McKenna/CBC)

As CEO of Montreal's Old Brewery Mission, Matthew Pearce has been an outspoken advocate for homeless people in the city. But now, after 12 years on the front lines, he's announced he plans to retire.

Under his leadership, the mission pivoted from an emergency shelter to a 24/7 resource centre, and developed a research department in partnership with McGill University—the first and only one of its kind in Canada.

In honour of his contributions to the city and its vulnerable populations, Pearce was awarded the Governor General's prestigious Meritorious Service Cross on July 2.

This week, he announced that he would be leaving his position in September.

"I thought this would be a good time to step away," he told CBC. 

"The mission is facing some challenges in the coming year," he said, "of a kind that require a commitment from whoever is in this chair to be here for several years."

Pearce added that his wife retired nine months ago, and now is the right time to follow suit.

"I think we need to line up our lives," he said.

During his tenure, Pearce advocated for Montreal to open its first wet shelter (where people are allowed to consumer alcohol under supervision) for people with issues of substance abuse.

He was also involved in the conversion of the old Royal Victoria Hospital site into a winter emergency overflow shelter.

 Pearce said he's proud of the work he's been able to do alongside his team.

"The mission hasn't just evolved over the last 12 years, it's been a revolution."

He said notions about homelessness in the city have changed drastically over the last decade.

"We have tried to deepen Montrealers' understanding and sensitivity to what it means to be homeless," he said. 

'A change-agent'

Sam Watts, director of the Welcome Hall Mission, praised Matthew Pearce, calling him a change-agent. (CBC)

Sam Watts, director of the Welcome Hall Mission, has worked very closely with Pearce over the years and praised him for the way he shifted the conversation about homelessness.

"The best way to describe Matthew is that he's a change-agent. What he managed to do was to change the way people in Montreal were thinking," said Watts.

He said Pearce helped shift the focus from temporary shelter to housing.

"Mathew was a leader all over North America, in terms of helping us understand some of the steps we needed to take in order to change the way we were operating."

Watts said he has mixed feelings about his friend stepping back into retirement.

"It's always hard to have one of your amigos ride off into the sunset, but it's a well deserved retirement that he's going to have, since he's worked so very hard."

A helping hand

Ernest Bolzan, a Canadian Armed Forces veteran, has been living at the Old Brewery Mission for almost a year.

Ernest Bolzan, a Canadian Armed Forces veteran, said the Old Brewery Mission helped him get access to benefits and housing. (CBC)

Now, thanks to the mission's housing program, he's set to move into his own apartment next week.

The mission steered Bolzan toward benefits programs available to veterans and helped him register.

"If it wasn't for OBM, I don't know what would have happened to me."

Bolzan hasn't interacted directly with Pearce, but he still wanted to offer his appreciation for the help he received at the mission.

"I'd just like to say, 'Thank you very much Mathew Pearce for what you've done'.

'He is the Old Brewery Mission'

Eric Maldoff, chair of the board of the Old Brewery Mission, said Pearce will be missed and his contributions endure long after his departure.

"When he first said it to me, I almost fell off my feet," Maldoff told CBC.

"He is the Old Brewery Mission as far as I'm concerned."

Maldoff said Pearce has "brought huge change," but at a certain point, "a guy is entitled to say: 'I've decided to retire.'"

The Mission has announced that Pearce will be succeeded by James Hughes, who was the mission's director general from 2004 until 2008.

With files from CBC's Matt D'Amours


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