Nunatsiaq Online
NEWS: Montreal October 12, 2017 - 9:15 am

Lizzie Saunders, dead at 36: the reality of living homeless in Montreal

"It is like quicksand"

Lizzie Saunders and her four-year-old son Prince on Sept. 21, three days before Saunders died of heart failure in Montreal. (PHOTO BY BARBARA MCDONALD)
Lizzie Saunders and her four-year-old son Prince on Sept. 21, three days before Saunders died of heart failure in Montreal. (PHOTO BY BARBARA MCDONALD)

MONTREAL—Lizzie Saunders was known among her friends and family for her over-the-top kuniks.

To her, if your nose or face didn’t hurt after Inuktitut kisses, you weren’t doing it right, says Barbara McDonald, the president of Tasiutigiit—a Montreal support group for cross-cultural Inuit and First Nations families—and the adoptive mother of Saunders’ four-year-old son Prince.

Of the 75 children McDonald has fostered or adopted over the past 45 years, Saunders was the only mother who would travel across the city to give McDonald a cart full of as much baby formula and diapers as she could muster.

Though she was unable to do it full time, Saunders was determined to help raise her son. She was always presentable and never intoxicated when visiting with Prince, McDonald said.

Saunders’ heart was big and loving, but it was not strong.

On Sept. 24, Saunders, 36 and originally from Kuujjuaq, died of heart failure just after leaving Montreal’s St. Luke’s hospital. She had told her friends that doctors had for some time been urging her to take it easy on her heart, and that she would soon need a pacemaker.

Saunders also struggled with alcoholism and addictions while trying to survive on the streets of Montreal, but, McDonald said, you wouldn’t know it by looking at her.

Being homeless never stopped Saunders from maintaining a bond with her children and doing all that she could to show it.

And Saunders did the same for the children of other women she knew from the streets, friends say. When McDonald gave her country foods, Saunders often shared that precious food from home with other women who hung out at Cabot Square, a popular gathering spot for Montreal Inuit.

“Even if she had just a few dollars, she was always giving,” said friend Eva Sharky, originally from Iqaluit, but now homeless in Montreal.

Another friend from the streets, Cape Dorset’s Akuluk Qatapik, fondly remembers how Saunders would shake the ponytail elastic out of her hair, wiggle her head and smile—a signal between friends to begin braiding each other’s hair.

Living on the streets made Saunders resilient and she helped other women stay positive, her friends say, but it also took its toll on her health.

Another friend, Stanislas Mailly, who has known Saunders for eight years, said she didn’t talk much about her health or other struggles. He said that is typical of Inuit he has met, surviving on Montreal streets.

“It is something that they don’t think about, to talk about, because they are living it,” Mailly said. “It is like quicksand.”

“She was always open to help other people, no matter how much challenges she was going through, like a team,” said Putulik Qumak, a distant cousin of Saunders from Cape Dorset. “She was always wanting to work together.”

McDonald knew that Saunders had once worked in Nunavik nickel mines and had tried to get a post-secondary education while in Montreal but eventually she found herself homeless and struggling with alcohol.

McDonald said that when she would ask her why she didn’t move back home to Kuujjuaq, Saunders said that it would be even worse for her up there.

She kept her worries to herself, friends say, unwilling to burden others.

“I only saw the side of Lizzie that Lizzie allowed because I think she didn’t want me to worry about the harshness of living on the street,” McDonald said.

Saunders would see McDonald and Prince nearly every month. The last time was just three days before Saunders’ death.

Prince had wanted to ask his biological mother out on a “date,” for the next day but unfortunately, they were unable to meet up. Friday and Saturday passed, and then Saunders’ heart gave out.

McDonald says the purpose of the date was to celebrate Prince’s adoption being finalized on August 15—it had been a four-year process. Saunders had heard the good news the last time they saw each other, on Sept. 21.

“I think that was a worry for her, that he hadn’t been adopted yet,” McDonald said. “And when I told her that was why we were there that day, getting his birth certificate, it was like a weight was just lifted off her.”

Since Saunders’ death, Prince has been going through mood swings as he copes with the loss of his biological mom, McDonald said.

“He had asked if we were going to see anaana today and I said no, anaana was flown back home and she is buried,” she said.

Throughout the interview, Prince digs up holes in the grass at the Cabot Square park, looking at pictures of “diggers” on McDonald’s cell phone and asking his adoptive mom to buy him a toy tractor. Right now he is going through a digging phase, she says.

McDonald’s dream is to take Prince north to meet his grandmother and siblings. She and Prince were unable to fly to Kuujjuaq in time for the funeral but McDonald knows how important it is to keep Indigenous family connections, even if the systems in place sometimes make that difficult.

“Looking back, it is like she knew it was coming to an end,” McDonald said, describing their hugs that last day as deeply loving, with Saunders giving Inuktitut kisses until her nose hurt.

“I think the last thing was him,” she said, referring to Prince. “It was the last thing that needed to be taken care of.”

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(15) Comments:

#1. Posted by Nunavimiuk on October 12, 2017

SAD,SAD,SAD.  Third inuk to die on the Streets of Montréal.

#2. Posted by Louisa Okkuatsiak on October 12, 2017

so sad, my sister had committed suicide in jail in that same week before my best friend’s death…it is all so overwhelming, i still grieve…and cry most of the days…may GOD rest their souls…i have loved you and i always will…i will be missing you for the rest of my days <3

#3. Posted by Kinngarmiu on October 12, 2017

So sad to read this kind of article, it hurts to see fellow inuit who are hurt by this.  Naalummi to her family, my heart is with the family and friends.  But as I was reading this, my question is who is “Akuluk Qatapik?”  I’m from Kinngait and never heard of “Akuluk Qatapik”  Again, I’m saddened by this.

#4. Posted by Nunavumiu on October 12, 2017

I think she knew she was going, she kunink her son as if it was her last time.

#5. Posted by Kuujjuamiuq on October 12, 2017

We will deeply miss her, she was like an Angel for everyone, she always keep up to date of all homeless people, pictures we’ve seen from her posts, people whom we’ve forgot that are still existing, but being homeless in Montreal.

People are not homeless when being up North, but, when they return to Montreal, there is no home to enter.

Rest in Peace our Sister of all, you’ll be missed.

#6. Posted by William on October 12, 2017

We bring people from all over the damn world and set them up in free homes and subsidized jobs and some are even given 8 to 15 grand start-up money; yet, Lizzie Sanders, Native Continent Legal Owners is overlooked as is par for the course regarding the Legal Native Continent Owners. The F—ing Trail of Tears just doesn’t stop!!

#7. Posted by Nunavimmiuq on October 13, 2017

#6: 8 to 15 grand is nothing up North!

We live in most expensive high cost living, we pay our fruits & vegetables at very high prices, a pound or more of fresh grapes costing $32 a bag, vegetables that we don’t have are so expensive, a pound of meat over $20 or more, high rents just to cover our head and to sleep in. Come & visit up North and pay a visit to all stores, and our airline tickets we pay over 2 grand to Montreal & return, 2 grand can bring you overseas for vacation, we have exotic fruits nor vegetables but receives them from south with cargo fees.

And our hunting or camping gear costs are also so high, we pay the price of a brand new car when it comes to buying snowmobile or ATV vehicles over 13 grand and more.

Yet we have children to feed in overcrowded housing, etc. Come & smell the true North, instead of whining & helping out people from all over the world.

#8. Posted by Inuk from Montreal on October 13, 2017

In a lot of cases a self inflicted Trail of Tears, if people follow the devil
into alcohol and drugs, what do they expect?
A lot of immigrants to Canada are hard workers who pay back through
taxes whatever Canada gave them. I work with many for years.
Native Continent Land Owners ?  I am sure if you pay back all the money Canada has invested over the years it will be well.
A good fair deal,you get your land back, and Canada gets its money
back, everybody is happy!

#9. Posted by Northen Guy on October 13, 2017

#6 not sure where you are getting your facts but you need a new source. The Government of Canada’s Resettlement Assistance Program (RAP)provides neither free homes nor $8K to $15K in so called “start up money” to new immigrants entering Canada. Monthly income support is indexed to the social assistance rate of the Province or Territory of residence, so they get no more or less than what Canadians are entitled to.

#10. Posted by Gunna Deen on October 13, 2017

Dear #7,
      So why not move South? You are hardly living a traditional Inuit
Look after your family first. Be a responsible person.

#11. Posted by Nunavimmiuq on October 13, 2017

#10, sorry, I’m not a southerner type of Inuk! born & raised in North, yet I prefer surviving on my own on our own Country food, I help and cook as a Mother, I raise kids, sew clothing not store bought clothing, because they are not warm, we use our own materials.

There are too many dangerous areas in South, we lost few from murderers, I rather be safe back home and continue working for my families.

As a responsible Parent, I also drive vessels in order to hunting as a female parent, I work, feed my kids, sew clothing for my family, what kind of responsible person are you looking Gunna Deen?!

#12. Posted by Gunna Deen on October 13, 2017

# 11,
I only made the comments I did because of your comments about the
high cost of products in Nunavut, and as long as you have high freight
costs prices will be high.
  My grandparents moved to England in 1948, after the British left India,
a lot off my relatives died in 1951 from starvation.
Good luck to you.

#13. Posted by Susie on October 15, 2017

Thank you for writing Barbara, knowing Lizzie made a choice to stay in montreal, even when she was homeless. all her family knew.
thank you for the insight of her state.
Inhope you and Prince do come for a visit, but the airline fare is quite high. Thank you for have been a source of hope for Lizzie.

#14. Posted by Nunavimmiuq on October 16, 2017

Gunna Deen, yet I’m not from Nunavut, we are in Nunavik, and I’m sorry of your family history died from starvation, I lost a grandfather too from starvation, we are all facing survival skills.

Let’s stay and remember the lady we’ve lost, this is about our cousin Lizzie Saunders, R.I.P. our dear cousin, friend, deepest condolences to her close families.

#15. Posted by Ilinniaqtuq on October 17, 2017

#9 It’s true that refugees don’t get free homes. BUT they get lots of supports that Inuit also need when they move to cities.

Through the Private Sponsorship of Refugees Program, refugees get: one year of living in a normal residence (ie not mouldy social housing) for free + up-front payment of their airplane tickets + language lessons + help resettling in the city, getting healthcare, getting their kids in school and finding a job. 

This is a proactive way to ensure refugees do well when they arrive in Canadian cities.

By contrast, Inuit who move to cities get: social housing (if it is available - if not, homelessness), no up-front payment of their airplane tickets, and very little support in navigating the city. 

Inuit like Lizzie who move to Montreal should be given the same supports as refugees. Period.

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