‘We cannot ignore them’: Family of Raphael Andre make plea for homeless people in Montreal

There’s a term in the Innu language which describes the kind of man Raphael “Napa” Andre once was, his family says.

The word is Nutshimit-Innu and it’s used to describe someone with inextricable ties to the land.

Someone, like Napa, who deeply loved the swaths of forest enveloping his home community of Matimekush-Lac John in Quebec’s Cote-Nord region.

It’s also used to describe those who learn ancestral teachings in the traditional Innu way – intently, and through observation.

Napa was the eldest son of a proud, blended family: his father, Innu, and his mother, Naskapi.

Suzanne Andre told APTN News her son was a “very good person” who “loved everyone.”

And to those who knew and loved him back, he is remembered as so much more than the “homeless Indigenous man” local media referred to after Napa died a short distance from a shelter he frequented.

On Sunday, Napa’s body was discovered in a portable toilet in the Milton-Parc neighbourhood of Montreal, not far from The Open Door, a “wet” shelter serving the predominantly Indigenous clientele in the area.

The image of how Napa was found is one his father can’t shake. They had spoken only days before, and Napa seemed to be in a good space, he said.

“We found it strange, and we were surprised he was found in the toilet,” Daniel Andre told APTN in an interview this week.

“We thought if it was heated – if the toilet was heated – he’d be alive. He died for nothing… really for nothing,” he added.

Napa had a cell phone, and called home often. The last time he physically saw his parents was in 2019, during an Elder’s gathering in Uashat Mak Mani Utenam.

Napa’s parents say he first came to Montreal over a decade ago.

According to Daniel, he “fell in love” with the city.

Suzanne says she would’ve gladly bought her son a plane ticket if he ever wanted to return home permanently.

“I think this is something that should never happen again, what happened to my son,” she explained. “I hope for all of humanity to take care of each other has human beings.”

“Those who wander the streets – those children – I think often of those children. We cannot ignore them,” she said in Naskapi.

Matimekush Chief Real McKenzie told APTN  he found out about Napa’s passing through the community grapevine – hours before he was contacted by authorities.

“I was headed out on a Ski-Doo when someone stopped me to tell me,” he explained. “It hit hard – the sadness.”

 ‘Begging not to leave’

Family of Raphael Andre
Andre in an undated photo. Photo courtesy: Jimmy Vollant.

Frontline workers and advocates for the homeless insist Napa’s death could have been avoided.

When an outbreak of COVID-19 started to work its way through the city’s homeless community – directly impacting clients of The Open Door – Montreal public health officials ordered them to close overnight.

Intervention worker John Tessier says, even now, he’s not sure why.

“They said we could only open until 9:30 p.m., but then they didn’t give us a list of specific reasons why it was better for the public’s health to kick people out in the cold to re-circulate and possibly be exposed to COVID, and then come back,” Tessier explained.

“It made no sense. And we were writing and writing and emailing, and never an answer. Until after this tragedy happened, and now all of a sudden everyone is answering and asking ‘what do you need to stay open?’”

“But it’s a bit too late for Raphael.”

Napa was reportedly well-known in the urban Indigenous community, and a near-daily client of The Open Door, according to Tessier.

On the night he died, Tessier says Napa was “begging not to leave.”

With the details of his death sealed as part of an ongoing coroner’s inquiry, little is known about the time Napa left the shelter at 9:30 p.m., and the time he was found by passerby on Sunday morning.

“Napa was a strong guy but with a good heart. A lot of people – everyone really – respected him, and cared about him,” Tessier added. “He was generous all the way until the end, always willing to share.”

In the two weeks since Quebec announced its province-wide curfew, a handful of the city’s homeless have received tickets for being out past 8 p.m. – fueling speculation that Napa may have been hiding from Montreal police at the time of his death.

It was enough for Mayor Valerie Plante to demand that Quebec exempt the homeless from the curfew order, which is expected to remain in place until February 8.

In response, Premier Francois Legault said he believes curfew critics are trying to “divide” Quebecers.

The premier made the comments Thursday while responding to recent calls from all three opposition parties, the mayor of Montreal and federal Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller, who all said the homeless shouldn’t be included in the 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew.

Legault told reporters he was saddened by the incident but added Montreal police know the city’s homeless population “very well” and won’t give fines to that community “for fun.”

“I’ve asked the opposition and many people to give me one example of a police officer who took a bad decision and they cannot answer that, so it’s working well,” he said, regarding the hundreds of instances overall when police have fined people for violating curfew.

“I find it very unfortunate to see certain people try to divide us, trying to say that there are good guys and bad guys, that there are some who care for the homeless and some who don’t care.

“We all want to help the homeless, it’s complex and it’s not the time to divide us, it’s the time to work together.”

Quebec’s Indigenous Affairs Minister – himself a former Montreal Police officer – said in a statement that “for complicated problems, there are no simple solutions.”

Ian Lafreniere said this week believes a curfew exemption is a “non-solution,” but in collaboration with officials at the City of Montreal, secured other temporary relief measures in the meantime.

Quebec announced it was adding 262 shelter beds in the Montreal area – including 150 beds in a soccer stadium for homeless people with COVID-19 who don’t need to be hospitalized.

But advocates on the ground maintain there is a pressing need for “wet” shelters, or shelters where people can consume under supervision, or “sleep it off” if already intoxicated.

It’s something the Viens Commission final report – which examined the experience of First Nations and Inuit within Quebec’s public systems – called for back in 2019.

“The whole point is they were forcing us to close and kick people out when we have a place where people could’ve rested comfortably,” Tessier said.

“Hopefully that’s going to change now, but it sucks that it took a man’s life for people to listen. Because we told them this is exactly what would happen.”

Meanwhile, further north, Andre’s family says they wish they could lay flowers at the site where their son died, but they don’t know anyone in Montreal.

Napa’s body will be flown back to Matimekush this weekend, for a viewing and burial on the territory he once loved so much. A vigil in Montreal is planned for next week.

Though facing the unfathomable loss of her son, Suzanne says society overall should be taking better care of those “under the effects of drugs and alcohol.”

“They are human beings too,” she explained.  “We need to respect and take care of them.”

With files from The Canadian Press 

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