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Montreal's airport can be a culture shock for Inuit. These front-line workers are there to help

Kautjak Qaunnaaluk, left, and Moses Aronsen, right, are both front-line workers at Makivvik's Reaching Home and Urban Inuit. They meet Inuit patients arriving at Montreal's Trudeau International Airport. (Sara Eldabaa/CBC - image credit)
Kautjak Qaunnaaluk, left, and Moses Aronsen, right, are both front-line workers at Makivvik's Reaching Home and Urban Inuit. They meet Inuit patients arriving at Montreal's Trudeau International Airport. (Sara Eldabaa/CBC - image credit)

Four years after Kautjak Qaunnaaluk's sister died of an overdose while she was experiencing homelessness in Montreal, the front-line worker is trying to ensure it doesn't happen again.

Originally from Ivujivik, in northern Quebec, Qaunnaaluk is one of a team of five Inuit workers in the Pierre-Elliott-Trudeau International Airport in Montreal on rotation seven days a week. It's part of a new project run by Makivvik Corporation, the organization representing Inuit in Nunavik in northern Quebec.

"For me it's part of a healing journey to be helping the community on the streets or here at the airport," said Qaunnaaluk.

She says her sister found herself unhoused in Montreal after originally travelling south as a medical escort for a family member. When Qaunnaaluk saw a job posting for the front-line worker role at the airport, she says she felt pulled to apply.

"It's emotional," said Qaunnaaluk. "At the same time it's also uplifting knowing that maybe I did prevent something like this from happening."

Equipped with yellow arm bands, the team focuses on support and prevention — offering assistance to Inuit in their first language as they arrive in Montreal.

They are also there to help people who want to get back home navigate the rules of the airport.

Even something as mundane as a flight being cancelled can start a spiral that can lead to homelessness if a person doesn't have the resources to regroup and figure out how to get another flight home — or where to stay in the meantime.

Qaunnaaluk says she already helped one individual who was experiencing homelessness fly back to their community.

"They get stuck and they end up in the streets," said Qaunnaaluk. "All they need is someone to talk to, that's all they need. To be able to do this, for me, it's a big thing."

Kautjak Qaunnaaluk says she was inspired to apply for the front-line worker position in honour of her late sister.
Kautjak Qaunnaaluk says she was inspired to apply for the front-line worker position in honour of her late sister.

Kautjak Qaunnaaluk says she was inspired to apply for the front-line worker position in honour of her late sister. (Sara Eldabaa/CBC)

'In the north, it's a completely different world': program director

Friday marked the end of the first full week of work for the team, says Joey Partridge, director of the Reaching Home Urban Inuit program for Makivvik.

He says the program was nearly a year in the making and is the first of its kind run by an Inuit organization.

"We try to make sure that we don't leave anyone behind," said Partridge.

"It's very challenging for us to try and understand how we can try to help everyone, but at the same time knowing that it's really needed."

Partridge says aside from offering passengers advice about the airport, the team also warns of the possible dangers in the city.

"We just try to advise them to be a little bit more alert of what might happen and to try and follow through with their plans," said Partridge.

"In the north it's a completely different world than what we see here," he said. "So this will be very beneficial for our community."

Joey Partridge, Director of Makivvik Reaching Home and Urban Inuit, says the project at the Trudeau Airport in Dorval has been nearly a year in the making.
Joey Partridge, Director of Makivvik Reaching Home and Urban Inuit, says the project at the Trudeau Airport in Dorval has been nearly a year in the making.

Joey Partridge, director of Makivvik's Reaching Home and Urban Inuit program, says the project at the Trudeau Airport in Dorval has been nearly a year in the making. (Sara Eldabaa/CBC)

'It's hard to adapt,' says assistant at Montreal housing program

Moving to a big city can be extremely isolating, says Dorina Aragutak, an administrative assistant at Miyoskamin Second Stage Housing program, part of the Native Women's Shelter in Montreal.

She says Inuit often have to travel south for medical care or services but might experience a culture shock once here.

She says programs — like the one at the airport — can help "fill in the gap," making it easier for Inuit to land on their feet upon their arrival in a new city.

Dorina Aragutak says it's hard to adapt from a small community to a big community.
Dorina Aragutak says it's hard to adapt from a small community to a big community.

Dorina Aragutak says it's hard to adapt from a small community to a big community. (CBC)

"I did not have those resources when I came down south," said Aragutak.

"It's hard to adapt [from] a small community, to a big community, and then you get to face a lot of things you never knew that existed before."

Moses Aronsen, a front-line worker at the Reaching Home Urban Inuit program, says the team has been approaching passengers to ask them if they need assistance in finding lodging, getting identification or travelling.

"If you don't know anyone here, it just makes it that much more difficult to get around the city," said Aronsen.

He says a highlight in his new role is being able to interact directly with his community members.

"It's only been three weeks and people are already recognizing the services and recognizing that what we're doing is really helping our community," said Aronsen.