Partnerships, Relationships, and Collaborations

Founded in 2004, Projets autochtones du Québec (PAQ) is a non-profit organization whose mission is to provide shelter and culturally adapted social reinsertion services to First Nations, Inuit, and Metis men and women who are in situations of homelessness or difficulty. PAQ first operated as an emergency shelter out of an old laundry facility which belonged to the local health agency. The location matched the stage of development of the organization, as it began as a small service for a small yet growing number of Indigenous people who found themselves on the streets of Montreal.

Fast forward to around 2011, and the organization had already experienced a flood, an aging building, several changes in directorship within a short time span, and a looming eviction notice as the building needed to be repurposed. In retrospect, the eviction wasn’t such a bad thing. As much as we had grown accustomed to putting buckets under the leaking roof, and living in harmony with the mice, mites, bedbugs, and cockroaches, we were outgrowing our space.

Nonetheless, within the dirty but sturdy walls of the organization, there was a growing community and a sense of belonging, created not by the organization but by the people who gave it its raison d’etre.

To illustrate the setting, many of the walls were painted with Indigenous art done by residents of the shelter. The women’s dorm had no door but only a curtain to demark its space, there was no actual kitchen (only a stove and a small fridge plugged in someplace, with a laundry sink to deal with the dishes produced by the nightly supper), and the loud factory-like fans kept air circulating in the men’s dorm. Empty tubs of margarine were especially handy for dealing with the leaks in the men’s dorm roof whenever it would rain too hard. Fire trucks were all-too-common around breakfast-time, whenever someone forgot their toast in the toaster. Then there was the time the laundry nearly caught fire because our dryer ducts were too small, but no harm done.

 

Challenges

Like many community organizations, we were no strangers to a tight budget. At one point we were functioning on $400 per month, to feed nearly 30+ people per night. I can remember one of our shelter participants actually showing up in the evening with a donation of an industrial-sized roll of toilet paper that he evidently “recuperated” from the washrooms of a local government building. Bless his heart. Despite whatever he was facing day-to-day, PAQ was his home, and in that home was his family, his community, and community meant sharing.

Many Indigenous community members came to the city, perhaps for a better life, but often simply to escape something dark. But the south is not the north, the city is not a rural community, and Western norms of independence makes little room for interdependence. More and more Indigenous peoples were finding themselves in Montreal, in precarious situations, and facing a sort of culture shock.

 

Strengths

Addictions and violence were, of course, a reality at PAQ. However, what stood out the most within our walls was that it was home to a caring, generous, and hilarious community!
I would like to share a few of my memories with you to illustrate what that looked like:

    • The times when we had a group of community members volunteer to do a deep-clean of the shelter and boy did they ever make concrete shine!
    • The times when Jacob would wake up early, grab the Metro newspaper, and slip it under my door in the morning, always with a note, in my name, telling me to have a nice day.
    • Community members receiving country food from their northern community, and sharing it with absolutely everyone.
    • Hearing Charlie play the guitar and harmonica (at the same time), singing his famous Bacardi song.
    • Our dedicated cook, Agnes, who would make breakfast for supper whenever a community member gave her that special request.
    • Our shelter opening in the evening, and after having spent long days outside, community members would be the first ones with a smile on their faces, asking me how my day was and telling me to get home safe!
    • Having regular visits from volunteers Gino and Phil, who are among PAQ’s many angels, who would come with donations and hugs galore!
    • After a long day of work, I went outside, and there was Donald (who had trouble walking), cleaning the snow off my car because, in spite of the day he had, he cared more about how I was doing, and well, that’s just the gentle soul that he is.

Now, back to our eviction notice. We seemed to be faced with an injustice – having to move, having to go from a $250K budget to needing over $7M to relocate and purchase or build a new building, while still trying to consolidate as an organization. But suffering had its purpose, thank God! PAQ was blessed to have friends and a sense of community among people from different agencies who were supporting both the organization and myself in our efforts to consolidate, develop, and move.

We had the support of an internal staff member whose role was to support PAQ in its moving plans. We had a Community Organizer from the CIUSSS (health agency) who supported me and our Board of Directors in our consolidation and development. We had a Board member who went above and beyond to coach me and to lead our Board through its own growth. We had external partners who took time to guide and support PAQ in connecting us with the proper contacts, in making a case for the essential services we offered, and in counsel. PAQ’s community just seemed to attract people who believed that things should just be better for our community. It was a family that grew and grew and grew.

 

Laying the foundations for partnerships

Somehow, our challenges brought actors together from different agencies, who simply gave their best to support PAQ. Given that there was government funding available for transitional housing, we added that service to our shelter relocation plans in order to make our project financially viable. And transitional housing meant the beginnings of a continuum of services, moving away from simple emergency shelter services to actually providing a way OUT! I wish I could say I thought of that myself. But, truth-be-told, such ideas came from the many angels who brought their expertise and dedication to the table, for the good of our community! The ideas, strategies, and actions that helped PAQ to grow and provide better services was not born out of a strictly “for and by” approach, it was born out of the sense of commitment and community that others felt towards PAQ and the community that gave it life.

Our community was able to identify its needs and develop a vision. But in addition, our partners also had experience that they were willing to share, so we had the opportunity to learn from those who came before us. I would like to acknowledge the contribution of these institutional, political and community partners to our development.

Pushing and advocating is crucial. It is important. However, HOW we push, and HOW we advocate is pivotal. There were moments when that approach was necessary. However, building relationships, being humble, and recognizing the wisdom that others can bring to the table, is even more valuable in the long-term. I write these things now, because of course, hindsight is 20/20, and we all hopefully learn from our mistakes. I could have saved myself a lot of trouble if I heeded advice sooner than later.

Being humble meant also recognizing that in spite of the sense of injustice around our impending move and lack of budget, our organization DID have some serious consolidating and maturing to do, so that we would be adequately prepared to manage a larger budget and additional services within such a short time frame. We had our internal part to play, if we were to expect major funding increases. We needed to take that seriously. It was not simply a question of banging our fists on the table and making demands, it was a question of building effective services, taking the time to do things properly, and consolidating internally before thinking that we could build on a shaky foundation.

 

Building the structure for partnerships

When it came to the issue of needing governments to recognize our need for a new space, the gravity of the situation somewhat spoke for itself. I suppose that when bureaucrats visit your shelter and see a mouse run past them, it is somewhat evident that conditions are not ideal. Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words. The more you allow others to experience your reality on-the-ground, the better off everyone will be. Many of the government workers who helped us manage our project dollars would only get to see the reality of the organization reflected through our statistics and our reporting. They did not get to see the conditions we were working in, nor the reality of community members. I would definitely encourage organizations to invite government workers to visit, observe, and experience the reality of a community organization. Reports will never do the work justice.

I wish I could speak to the strategies behind these meetings with government representatives, but it’s all a bit of a blur now, and I’m fairly certain that other people just plopped those meetings into my agenda, and there you have it, relationships began to be built, and the grounds for collaboration were being tilled. What I am sure of is that I had plenty of support, once I recognized the value, and allowed that support in.

Slowly but surely, there was more and more recognition by governments that PAQ’s services were essential, that we were fit for the job in offering those services, and that it was now a question of where we would move, and who was going to give what amount of money for it.
The moment of truth came when, in the blink of an eye, and by the grace of God, a property across the street from our existing location became available. The clock was ticking. We had to place an offer! It was at the point when all levels of government came together, and each decided they were going to guarantee a certain portion of the cost. I recall a government employee saying “this is the first time we’ve all sat down around the table and worked together for one project”… and thus, a winning practice was born!

Blaming rarely works as the sole means to an end. Each agency and individual can have a role to play in the success of a project. That work is hardly ever done in a heroic vacuum. And to paraphrase the wise words of advice of our Community Organizer: Indigenous homelessness does not belong to PAQ to solve, it’s a collective responsibility. If PAQ ceased to exist, others would have to find ways to meet the needs of the community, and therefore it was incumbent on all actors around the table to do their part. It was also incumbent on us as an organization to listen to the questions that challenged us, and that challenged our decisions. That’s what helped us to make better choices.

Once it was recognized that Indigenous homelessness belonged to the whole of society, and we are ALL responsible, we began to have positive momentum. Our moving project became a collective responsibility, and it became a source of pride for all agencies involved. Suddenly, our partners and funders had a common goal: to see the growth and success of PAQ.

How much success would we have on the resolution of other issues if we were to adopt that approach, wherein, instead of seeking to lay blame, or seeking to be the heroes, we all recognize that each person and each agency has something relevant to bring to the table.

It takes a village, it takes community. The wellbeing of PAQ depended on its village, and the same is true for the wellbeing of those who access PAQ’s services. For my part, I have so many people to thank for contributing to a strong layer of PAQ’s foundation. Each person brought a piece of that foundation, each step of the way…and each of those blocks was important to bringing PAQ to where it is today.

Adrienne Campbell

Adrienne Campbell

Former Executive Director, Projets autochtones du Québec