Groundbreaking Montreal one-stop drop-in centre designed for Indigenous women after sexual assault

A new space in Montreal, just getting its final touches, is unlike any the city has had before.

It was inspired by two stark sets of facts. First, Indigenous people in Montreal are disproportionately likely to experience sexual violence.

Second, many Indigenous people don’t feel comfortable going to the police—especially if they’re women, transgender or Two-Spirit.

What could help? The founders of something called the Iskweu Project hope their new drop-in centre, meant for those three groups in particular, will make a big difference.

"At the end of the day it's really difficult for a lot of Indigenous people to go to the regular services that are offered because they may not be culturally appropriate, they may not speak the language,” said one of the project's founders, Jessica Quijano.

On top of that, “a lot of times they don’t want to go to the rape crisis centres that already exist,” said Quijano, who has worked in harm reduction in Montreal for over 20 years.

“So we decided we needed to create a space with drop-in hours so that when women are assaulted they can come here and we can help them in whatever capacity that they want.”

When Quijano and her partner, Janis Qavavauq-Bibeau, say they’re equipped for everything, they really mean it.

Without leaving the centre, they’ll be able to file police reports, and one day the organizers hope to be able to administer rape kits on-site to collect evidence. Families will be able to file missing persons reports.

It’s especially crucial to provide a comfortable space for those in their target group who are also homeless, the organizers said.

“We know that the assault rates are really high in the Indigenous community here in Montreal, particularly for the homeless Indigenous community,” said Quijano.

“There is a correlation between being assaulted, living in poverty, being homeless, going missing and being murdered,” she said. “So it's really addressing all of those different issues.”

The centre was created by the Native Women’s Shelter and is funded by Justice Canada and the Pathy Family Foundation.

It will also provide harm reduction supplies like condoms and clean needles, and most importantly, it will just keep people feeling at home, its organizers say.

Not only language barriers but fear of the police and medical systems—and racist treatment in various official systems—all stop people from getting emergency services.

“I want all the Indigenous women to know they can come here for any assistance and we can guide them to the right resources, and [to] know that there’s a safe place for them somewhere in the city,” said Qavavauq-Bibeau.

Seeing the nearly done office space this week, she said, “gave me a boost.”

It’s being designed with great care by Architects Without Borders, a group like Doctors Without Borders that’s made up of volunteer architects and interior designers.

Maude Ledoux, the architect working on the space, says it’s exactly what made her want to become an architect.

"For me, my work is important to bring quality of architecture in organizations that are not used to [living] in good, functional, architecture,” such as those serving the homeless, she said.

"If we are well protected we can live better. Everybody needs that in life.”

Ultimately, said Quijano, the project is based on the philosophy that people going through their worst moments in life already know what they need.

And its urgency, she says, comes from keeping in mind that that approach can make the difference between someone’s life and death.

“We really do believe that people have the answers to what they need to heal and find peace,” she said. 

“So it's really just about supporting them in a non-judgemental way.”

Watch the video above for Iman Kassam's report from the new centre.

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