This next bit, I wrote in the middle of the night before Scott and I went up to Saskatoon the first time. I liked it, so I put in the rotation.
Alvin Cote and George the Homeless Guy
Many of you probably heard the news in the last few weeks that Alvin Cote died. Alvin was fifty-nine years old and had been living on the streets of Saskatoon for many years. It was reported that Alvin had been arrested for public drunkenness 843 times, more than anyone else in the City’s history.
I remember hearing the story on CBC radio in my car as I drove my son to school one morning and it struck me as somehow very “Saskatchewanian” that we’d know about Alvin’s arrest record and that we would acknowledge his death on the province-wide news. According to what I read, Alvin was an alcoholic of the most persistent kind. He was very drunk every day. He was a sort of violent, difficult drunk at times. He’d get himself kicked out of homeless shelters because of his behaviour and his refusal to stop drinking while he was there. He’d end up in the custody of the police – the shelter of last resort.
Alvin had been physically and sexually abused for years as a child after being hauled away from his parents and placed in residential school. More recently, Alvin had suffered brain damage from a fall down a flight of stairs.
His family could not handle his drunken rages. He lived on the streets of Saskatoon and in the city jail for a couple of decades.
It was a sad story of the end of a sad life.
Then, the other night, I was cruising on my iPad and looking at one of my favourite news and opinion magazine websites – Slate. It’s an American publication and, like most American publications, is generally pretty well focused on America and things American. But there was a picture of Alvin Cote, from far-away Saskatoon Saskatchewan, sitting on a park bench, smiling broadly – looking very much the homeless alcoholic. The story, written by Slate’s crime blogger Justin Peters, begins in this way:
In America, homeless drunks are routinely ignored, or despised, or given one-way bus tickets out of town. In kind-hearted Canada, homeless drunks become local celebrities.
Okay, that’s a wildly inaccurate generalization. But a positive one.
Peters goes on to describe how Alvin had developed personal relationships with police officers and other members of the community. Although Alvin was often belligerent – “a fighter” he’d say – the cops looked out for him, bought him food, found him eyeglasses, kept him from freezing to death. When he did die, he was eulogized on the official blog of the Saskatoon Police. Officers admitted to shedding tears at the loss of Alvin.
The Slate blogger found this story both incredible and refreshingly hopeful. He quotes the Saskatoon city police chief saying, “It can be hard to help someone who doesn’t want to be helped. In situations like those, all you can do is offer empathy and kindness”.
“… all you can do is offer empathy and kindness.”
Well no kidding. Let’s hold on to that ideal for as long as we can in this hard, cold tough-on-crime country we’re becoming – because the Americans are looking to us for inspiration. We have a responsibility to live up to their inaccurate but positive perception of us.
The Alvin Cote story reminded me of a personal story of mine – I was thinking just the other night that I should write it down before I forget it.
For many years, while I worked for the provincial government, I was Saskatchewan’s Official Representative on the Federal Provincial Territorial Continuing Committee of Officials Responsible for Human Rights – something too lengthy to include on my business card. We just called ourselves “The Continuing Committee”. Yes. We did. We were a Committee that defined itself by its aspiration to “continue”.
The Continuing Committee is responsible to oversee Canada’s compliance with its international human rights obligations – especially those obligations flowing from the United Nations conventions Canada has ratified. There are a lot of human rights standards Canada has signed on to – political rights, equality rights. Anti discrimination rights. Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Rights specific to women and to children. Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Rights rights rights. I don’t think Canadians appreciate how committed Canada appears to be internationally on the human rights front.
As Saskatchewan’s Official Representative, I was responsible to write reports on measures the Saskatchewan government was pursuing to fulfill Canada’s obligations. I was also the point-person for inquiries coming from the United Nations on human rights issues specific to Saskatchewan.
One day, my phone rang.
It was a fellow from the Federal government, the Department of Canadian Heritage, which was the lead department on these international human rights things at the time.
He was new. I’d never spoken with him before. He was an earnest young guy, a Francophone Quebecois. Very polite and respectful – like I said, he was new. He was calling because there had been a request for information from some United Nations human rights agency responsible to investigate and report on the issue of homelessness in Canada. This fellow was compiling information by talking to provincial representatives, like me. So, he asked me if there was any information I could share with him about extent of the problem of homelessness in my province and how our government was addressing it.
“Oh, he died.” I said.
“He died.” I said again.
“Who died?” he asked.
“Who is George?”
“George was the homeless guy.”
There was a pause.
“George was the homeless guy?”
“There was only one homeless person in Saskatchewan?”
“Well,” I said, “He was the only one I knew.”
And it was true. It wasn’t true that there was only one homeless person in Saskatchewan. It was true that I didn’t know any of the others. It was also true that George, the homeless guy, had died a couple of weeks earlier. For many years, he could be found most days sitting on the planter in front of the coffee shop across the park from my office. Everybody knew George or knew, at least, who George was.
I talked to people with the Department of Social Services who told me that no efforts were spared trying to get George into social housing of some kind. George wasn’t interested. I guess he was stubbornly independent, as a consequence of his personality and his mental illness. He preferred to sleep under bridges and overpasses and spend his days wandering the streets, having coffee and talking to anyone who walked by, or to himself. After he died, the coffee shop hung a portrait of him on the wall above the planter.
I like how stories like this about George and Alvin give names and faces and personalities to the failures and limitations of our social policy; that people who fall through the cracks don’t necessarily fall out of sight. I love how Saskatchewan, despite its growth, wealth and development, remains small enough that we can know at least some of them, respectfully mark their passing, and miss them when they’re gone.