Nakuset Native Women's Shelter of Montreal


How the Native Women’s Shelter beat COVID-19 on their own terms

“I had zero faith that the CIUSS or public health were going to help us.”

Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal executive director Nakuset told us about her organization’s two-pronged struggle: with the COVID-19 pandemic and with Quebec public health.

So many people, families, businesses, organizations and institutions have gone to hell during COVID-19. Not all have come back, and while we’re still in the midst of this historic pandemic, this is a local success story that deserves to be told.

The Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal offers frontline services, including a three-month stay in a private room, exclusively to distressed Aboriginal women and their children. The shelter’s executive director, Nakuset (who also runs the Cabot Square day shelter Resilience Montreal), is a Cree woman who was born in Thompson, Manitoba and adopted and raised by a Jewish family in Montreal as part of the Adopt an Indian or Métis (AIM) program during the Sixties Scoop. As a victim of systemic racism, she considers herself lucky to be where she is today, and has dedicated her career to helping people in her extended community who didn’t fare so well, and continue to suffer.

When the city started to shut down in mid-March, Nakuset watched as other shelter operators altered their services and, in some, cases, closed their spaces entirely. “That was not an option for us — we needed to stay open,” she said. “We didn’t have many guidelines in terms of how to proceed, so we were really searching for best practices. We did a lot of research and came up with the concept of dividing staff: keep half the staff at home so that they can get paid to be healthy and then have another group of staff come in to be the core staff, so if anyone got sick we could just replace them with healthy staff. It seemed like a really good practice — until it wasn’t.”

Taking inspiration from the $2/hour bonus that supermarket chains were paying their employees as essential service workers, shelter staff members were paid an extra $4 per hour. Those who stayed home continued to provide counselling by phone. But unfortunately the shelter’s weekly requests to the CIUSS (the integrated university health and social services centre) for PPE, hand sanitizer and antiviral cleaning products were declined. Donations from the public proved to be more valuable than any government or institutional support.

Another issue that the shelter faced was COVID-19 testing for their residents in lockdown who exhibited potential symptoms. 

“As Indigenous people — considering the fact that we’re 18 times more likely to be racially profiled than anyone else, with this long history of abuse from the police — when we would send the women to go get tested at Place des Festivals (which was turned into a mass-testing site at height of the pandemic), there was a big line-up of police there. So the women would get out of the taxi, see the police, turn around, get back in the taxi and be like, ‘No, I’m not going.’ Indigenous people right now are really afraid of the police.”

When shelter staff members were asked to do double duty to help out at another shelter serving the Aboriginal community, a second location of the Projet Autochtone Québec (PAQ), Nakuset was concerned.

“I was sort of like, ‘Woah! What about what’s happening with cross-contamination in Ontario, where you had staff go from senior home to senior home?’ I was spending all my time at Resilience, just keeping in touch and making sure that things were going as smooth as possible, because I was afraid that I would bring (COVID-19) into the Native Women’s Shelter.”

Shit hits fan

“Suddenly one staff got sick, then another, then another, then another, until we had a total of seven staff who were sick. We brought in the second group and they got sick immediately, went home and ended up giving it to their family members. So we only had one staff that was walking around the shelter super-freaking out, thinking, ‘Am I going to be next?’ It was really unbelievable. We thought we did everything the right way.”

Nakuset once again appealed to the CIUSS for replacement staff (soldiers if need be), cleaning specialists to get COVID off surfaces, on-site testing for all the shelter’s residents and a last-resort hotel space to relocate the women to. A pair of helpful CIUSS social workers got the shelter an audience with one of their superiors, who promised to deliver all of the above — before taking it all off the table after a quick call to public health authorities.

“I said, ‘What about the hotel?’ and he said, ‘I don’t think that’s the appropriate place for your ladies,’ and I said ‘Oh really?’”

One of the social workers contacted her supervisor at the CIUSS to double down on the hotel option. The unnamed four-star hotel was already affiliated with SOS Violence Conjugale, and therefore used to accommodating women in crisis. “Her supervisor said, ‘You know what? Let’s do it now — let’s just move the women out now.’”

That same day, all the women were transported to get tested for COVID-19 and then checked into the hotel, which was set up with three colour-coded floors so that the women could be grouped based on whether they were waiting for test results, COVID-positive or COVID-negative. The Native Women’s Shelter closed down for two weeks.

What now?

Native Women's Shelter of Montreal
“Yellow Dancer” by Jon Labillois

“Then we all turned and looked at the shelter and said, ‘What now?’ We needed to bring the shelter up to code.”

On a conference call with the CIUSS, including her social worker helpers and the previously unhelpful superiors, Nakuset once again appealed for assistance, only to be told she’d hear back in a week. Two and a half weeks passed before anyone checked in.

“In the meantime, I got in touch with Bruno (Demers) who works for Architecture Sans Frontières (ASF) — they had helped me turn Resilience Montreal from a dive into a spa, with 150 volunteers. He said, ‘Well, right now I’m working with other shelters, designing them in such a way where people can use the services but you can keep the spaces safe.’”

The three-floor facility was reconfigured and fitted with all the pandemic-era features that have become so familiar: plastic barriers, arrow stickers on the floor to direct foot traffic, hand sanitizer stations and more.

“(ASF) were the ones who came and did all that and created the policy that’s in place now. We spoke to another consultant about best practices and we moved forward with these initiatives, because I had zero faith that the CIUSS or public health were going to help us. That call that I was supposed to have with them around May 26 only happened on June 4. We reopened the shelter on June 1.

“Basically, they were like, ‘I’m glad you reached out to Bruno and I’m glad everything is up to speed.’ Someone from public health came to the shelter, looked around and gave us the approval (to remain open) and that was it.”

Aside from adopting new ways of working, shelter staff who’d recovered from COVID-19 also had to contend with conflicting information from the CIUSS and public health about when it was safe to return to work — the former said you needed two negative tests, while the latter said that workers could simply return 14 days after symptoms had subsided.

“We were really confused,” Nakuset said. “Who do we believe? Are you trying to set us up? One of my colleagues who got a positive test went back after he was feeling better, after 14 days, and his test was still positive. He was like, ‘Well, what do I do?’ and I said, ‘I don’t know, but it doesn’t sound good.’ What happened is a lot of my workers didn’t come back. It’s almost three months later and one of them is still testing positive.”

What’s next

When I spoke to Nakuset in the second week of July, she and the shelter staff were still adjusting to new protocols, which extend beyond masks, physical distancing and hand-sanitizing. Many of their counselling services were still being offered exclusively by phone; the shelter had recently begun admitting new women, who had to get tested and self-quarantine for 14 days; residents were divided on different floors based on whether they were in quarantine or tested positive or negative, much like the temporary hotel set-up was; meals in the shelter are served separately, in shifts, rather than the old buffet approach; meals are also being delivered to people in need.

“When the pandemic first started and everyone was doing the baking and cooking thing, we were like, ‘Hey, why don’t you make a meal for a family that’s on the verge of homelessness, or a woman who can’t leave the home to go to the grocery store because she has children and she can’t bring her kids and we don’t want her to starve?’ We were able to go and pick up meals and drop them off, so that’s been super successful. It’s very different still working at the shelter. We have to think outside the box in terms of how we can provide these services.”

Thinking outside of the box is also manifesting literally, with the impending expansion of the Native Women’s Shelter: a second-stage housing facility with 23 units and services to help women with children is coming soon. Nakuset has been advocating for the proper treatment of Indigenous children for years, trying to work with and educate child services and the Batshaw Youth and Family Centre — she is one of the authors of what she calls “the idiot’s guide to raising an Indigenous child” (ie. The Cultural Manual for Foster and Adoptive Parents of Aboriginal Children — check it out here). This work is extremely personal for Nakuset, who was separated from her sister for 25 years, only to lose her to suicide in 2018. Her battle with Batshaw (where she herself was on file pre-adoption as part of the AIM program) and child services — in light of their unwillingness to adopt changes to Indigenous child welfare recommended by the 2019 Viens commission, and given the Quebec government’s similar resistance to changes proposed by the federal Bill C-92 — is one that she’s now shifting to a team that will work in-house at the new, second shelter location.

“They’re going to start breaking ground in September, and we’re having the Fondation Dr. Julien in the building so if there’s a problem with a child, the women have doctors and lawyers and all these other people who surround them and help to move the system faster than we can. A lot of the times when women lose their kids, they never get them back. People can be referred from the community to be like, ‘I’m having a really hard time, I’m afraid of losing my kids,’ and they become a client and then they have an army of professionals around them.

“I’m not a doctor, I’m not a PhD, I’m not a masters — I’m just Nakuset with a BA, and a lot of people don’t take that seriously because I don’t have the right credentials,” she says. “I have 21 years of experience, but when you get all those doctors and other people involved, they sit up straighter in their chair when those people are saying, ‘Hey, we need to address this issue — what have you done?’” ■

For more details, and to donate to the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal, visit the organization’s website.

For more on Montreal life, visit our Life section.