North·Reporter's Notebook

How Fort Simpson rallied to open its warming shelter, just in time

In Fort Simpson, community members are leading the charge in opening a warming shelter. Last Friday, the shelter opened for the first time.

Local villagers explain how they were able to open warming shelter without public funding

Muaz Hassan, owner of the Unity Store, walks toward the new warming shelter in Fort Simpson, just hours before opening for the first time. (Hannah Paulson/CBC News)

The temperature rests below -30C as Muaz Hassan walks toward the former Unity Store in Fort Simpson, N.W.T., that's been turned into a warming shelter.

It's Friday afternoon, just hours before the shelter opens its doors for the first time. 

Hassan has been leading the charge in getting the the shelter ready in his store's previous location, in a building that he owns. 

As I walk in, I see a few tables and foldable chairs. Hassan tells me that this is just the beginning, there's much more work to be done. 

While showing me around, he talks about how he sees the space as becoming more than just a place where people can warm up, maybe evolving into a centre for gathering. 

Mayor Sean Whelly and Muaz Hassan discuss how the warming shelter will be opened. (Hannah Paulson/CBC News)

Shortly after, Sean Whelly, the mayor of Fort Simpson, arrived. We sat down to chat about how the community realized its goal of opening the shelter. 

So far, the shelter has been operating without funding assistance. Last week, a committee tasked with developing the shelter submitted a funding proposal but, anticipating cold temperatures, volunteers decided to open and run the shelter until funding is secured. 

Often, people wander around the village of about 1,200 without a place to go. Sometimes, they are picked up by police or community members, who either try to find somewhere for them to go, or they are brought into the RCMP station. The shelter provides a third option and fills a gap in services.

Muaz Hassan, owner of the Unity Store, takes care of some final details before opening the warming shelter. (Hannah Paulson/CBC News)

Hassan wants the space to be welcoming, regardless of whether people lack access to stable housing or if they do have a home. But he worries the distance is difficult to travel in extreme temperatures. 

A portion of the Fort Simpson population lives on the hill, which can vary from five to seven kilometres from the centre of town. In the dead of winter, it can be dangerous if there aren't many vehicles traveling along the road. 

I asked Hassan about how he got involved. He responded by telling me about his life before immigrating to Canada. He worked in war-torn countries, where he helped refugees and displaced people. 

He said that his instinct has always been to help people. Although the context differs, he explained that he still feels the need to do whatever he can to help alleviate the harm he sees people face.

Warming shelter hosts open house

The day after Hassan showed me around, I was invited to the shelter's open house. I was greeted by familiar faces who offered me coffee, tea and baked goods. 

The open house kicked off with a few words from Whelly, followed by a prayer in Dene Zhatie by Cheryl Cli. Gerald Antoine, the chief of the Liidllii Kue First Nation, also offered a few words in Dene Zhatie. 

Troy Bellefontaine is a village councillor and the owner of Beauty Mark salon in Fort Simpson. He said that the shelter had been discussed before, but they ran into “roadblock after roadblock," until they were able to garner greater community support and find a location. (Hannah Paulson/CBC News)

Afterwards, I spoke to Michel Benoit, a teacher at Liidlii Kue Regional High School. 

He volunteered to monitor the shelter the night before. He said he was compelled to volunteer because he knows many of the people who need help. 

"So by being here, I realized that maybe they would feel comfortable coming in because they know me," Benoit said. 

Fort Simpson had considered the idea of opening a warming shelter in the past. 

Fort Simpson warming shelter's open house kicks off. (Hannah Paulson/CBC News)

Troy Bellefontaine, a local business owner who runs the Beauty Mark salon, said that the shelter had been discussed before, but they ran into "roadblock after roadblock.

"We didn't really have a space before this, and although we have the ideas, we didn't have money, we didn't have a space, we don't have the policies in place," he said. 

After reaching out for help from someone who runs a shelter in Yellowknife, "it kind of made it [the shelter] realistic and something that seemed attainable."

Then, Hassan opened a new store and offered up the previous location as a viable spot. 

"So here we are today ... actually standing in the building," said Bellefontaine.

The Chief of Liidlii Kue First Nation appears in the warming shelter. Chief Gerald Antoine said “it's something that will no doubt benefit our community and the people that are also utilizing it.” (Hannah Paulson/CBC News)

As you come into the building, he said it is warm and welcoming. 

"This is a place where you can go and you don't have to feel like you're loitering or being a problem to anybody because, you know, this is what it's here for. It's for you to come in." 

Shelter to benefit community, says chief

Before I left the shelter, I had a chance to talk to Liidlii Kue First Nations' Chief Gerald Antoine. 

Fort Simpson historically has been an important spiritual gathering place, he said, and continues to be a centre for people to come together. He suggested that the shelter, too, could become a centre for gathering. 

"It could be a place where we interact and engage with each other. So it has a lot of potential to go beyond with what today has opened up, providing this opportunity for people to utilize a facility like this."

"It's something that will no doubt benefit our community and the people that are also utilizing it."