I meet John Smallgeese under the bright lights of the post office. It’s just after 7 a.m., January 22, 2015, and still dark outside. A block down Franklin Avenue, -20 flashes on the YK Centre Mall sign.
John and four of his friends are leaning against postboxes and lounging on the floor. They pass around a plastic bag of full of cigarettes and a small bottle of Listerine.
“To help with the cold,” John says with a grin.
John is 42, with a mane of grey hair under a black toque, and a broad smile missing several front teeth. He’s not tall. But he’s broad-chested and bulked up with layers of sweaters and jackets. He hasn’t always lived on the streets. Born in Behchoko, he spent years working as a carpenter in Hay River and laying pipe in northern Alberta.
He’s been homeless in the city for the past four and half years since moving here from Hay River to search for his younger brother Calvin, who disappeared while roughing it in downtown Yellowknife in 2009.
“Slowly it’s coming together,” he tells me. “But no one wants to talk on drug-related things. He owed too much bills.”
Early morning post-office backflips | Photo by Mark Rendell
John starts most days like this. The Salvation Army emergency shelter closes around 7 a.m. and the Yellowknife day shelter doesn’t open until 8 a.m., so the post office and the foyer of the TD bank are where you stay warm. If you sleep in stairwells, as John did last night, it’s somewhere to rest when apartment security kicks you out in the early hours of the morning.
We arrive at the day shelter, kitty-corner to the downtown liquor store, shortly after 8 a.m. John introduces me to a small group of people smoking on the ramp outside, and I’m asked to wait for the media go-ahead from one of the shelter’s staff.
People stream past me in and out of the the building. Some are going inside for a quick breakfast before heading off to make a bit of cash shoveling walkways covered in fresh snow. Others share cigarettes and joke about sobering up after a night in the drunk tank. One man takes a furtive swig from a 40oz of whisky.
“You’re drinking,” says a staff member, opening the shelter’s door just as the man slips the bottle back into his jacket.
“No I’m not,” he replies, to a peal of laughter from the smokers.
“Come on, I can see the bottle. You’re going to have to leave and try again later.”
There’s a zero tolerance policy at the shelter – if you’re caught drinking or fighting you’re asked to leave. If it happens in the morning, you can often come back in the afternoon after sobering up.
Inside, the shelter smells of toast and coffee. A breakfast of cereal, bread, boiled eggs and fresh fruit covers two fold-out tables. MooseFM plays on the radio and around a dozen people lounge in chairs and on the leather couches.
It’s a fairly calm atmosphere, though a small scuffle breaks out between two guys and a male staffer has to get in the middle of the shouting match. It only becomes a “zoo” in the afternoon, says John, after people have spent the morning at “the office” – i.e. the liquor store.
An afternoon nip on the bottle | Photo by Mark Rendell
This large lime-green room is home base for the street community. It’s somewhere to get food, watch movies, and get out of the cold. There are playing cards and puzzles and a phone to make calls. Every second Thursday, two nurses come in to do medical check-ups.
“This is the only home we have in the daytime,” says 51-year-old Lucy Black.
Not everyone who uses the shelter is homeless. Some people live with family and friends, others even have their own apartments. For most people though, the shelter provides essential services.
The shelter staff helped Lucy apply for identification cards, for instance. “I just need my picture ID and then I can say hey, this is me. Even though I know who I am, I’ll look at my picture and go this is me. All this time, I didn’t know.”
Just before noon, John and I head to the library for a game of chess. “Watch out, I’m the master,” he tells me as we check the board out from the librarian. His breath smells strongly of Listerine and he’s wobbly on his feet. But when we sit down, he’s all concentration.
John spends many afternoons in the back of the library playing chess with friends. He learned to play the game watching his brother Calvin, and he carries around a ratty sheet of paper with the rules on it. He admits he’s not great at reading and uses it mostly to teach other people to play.
“I don’t know how to read a book, but I know how to read a blueprint. I can build a house right from scratch,” he tells me later.
John at the library | Photo by Mark Rendell
A few other street people gather around to watch the game. John comes at me fast with his queen and puts me in check early.
“Cop,” he says under his breath without taking his eyes off the board.
The guys watching straighten up and shuffle their feet nervously as the young officer strolls up.
“How much you guys been drinking?” he asks, patting down the jacket of one of the spectators. He tells them he’s heard a complaint that people were causing a fuss in the library, and stands around for a minute before walking away. John and his friends exchange quizzical glances.
It’s not unusual to be approached by police in the library, John tells me. Many street people are frequently kicked out and a number have been banned.
John’s own relationship with the police is mixed. He’s never trusted police since officers broke his dad’s leg in front of him as a kid; he shows me scars on his wrists that he says come from being handcuffed too tightly. But he also says he’s been treated well by police at times – one officer even gave him $40 to spend on food and cigarettes once.
It depends a lot on age, he says. Young officers have something to prove and can be rough. Older cops have usually shed their macho posture, he figures, and tend to treat him kindly.
After a few games of chess against John and his friends, we’re out “walking around.”
If there’s one activity that characterizes John’s day, it’s walking. Walking around the mall, walking to the bottle depot, walking to South Side, the name the street community have given to the area on the far side of Frame Lake. Sometimes John and his friends walk back and forth between downtown and South Side three times in a day.
As a full-time walker, the way John interacts with the city’s built environment is very different from mine. He knows all the passageways and shortcuts – through the TD Bank into the YK Centre Mall, behind the library staircase and out onto to 50th Street – and moves through them with ease and confidence.
On the way to the Co-Op, for what John assures me are the cheapest cigarettes in town, we meet up with his friend Shirley Ann Modest.
Shirley is in her mid 50s and has been one of John’s closest friends since he moved to Yellowknife. They party together in the summer and huddle together for warmth in the winter – “it makes Peanut [Shirley’s boyfriend] so jealous,” she tells me with a laugh.
The type of companionship Shirley and John share is not unique in the street community, from what I see. People stick together and share everything: food, liquor, smokes and body warmth. John and his friends collect bottles together, he tells me, and split the earnings. If someone ends up in the drunk tank, they always save a bit of liquor, “to help with the hangover,” the next day. People seldom sleep in stairwells alone.
“If I’m kicked out of the women’s shelter, I’ll sleep anywhere,” says Shirley. “I’ll go way underneath the stairs and sleep there if I have to. It’s scary. But then I always have somebody with me.”
“We watch each other’s back, back to back,” says John.
Street companions Calvin Bonnetrouge aka. Peanut and Floyd Tetso | Photo by Mark Rendell
That’s not to say there isn’t conflict. Shirley tells me close friends have robbed her when they were drunk. And the closeness in the community can also be an impediment to staying sober.
“It’s pretty hard to stay dry, when you have lots of bros and friends, all of them drinking,” says John. “You try to stay on top of it, and everyone is trying to put you down. They say, ‘you think you’re better than us because you’re not drinking.’”
Both John and Shirley have gone through rehab numerous times. John remembers staying sober for two weeks after going to Alberta’s Poundmakers Lodge Treatment Centre in 1991. Shirley was dry for 35 days in 2011 after treatment in Hay River. She started drinking when she got back to Yellowknife.
“Your friends haul you down to the same level as them,” she says. “They haul you down to nothing.”
Alcohol seems to be the one constant substance in the community. Some do drugs – crack is popular with younger people, says John – though it’s predominantly liquor for the older crowd. And not just wine and vodka. Listerine, Lysol, aftershave and hairspray work as well, he says.
“It’s just alcoholism,” Shirley says. “Though it gets to the point where I want to give up.”
Everyone I speak to, without exception, is open about his or her alcoholism. Most started drinking young, with friends or family. Many grew up with alcoholic parents.
“Dad used to wake me up at one o’clock in the morning, just to sit up with him while he drank. I didn’t even drink. I was 12 years old,” says John. “He’s older now, and I forgive him. I pray to God, but it hurts, you know.”
Violence, shame and residential schools are other refrains I hear throughout the day in conversations about drinking.
“We’re all hurt, you know, and when we drink, we talk our feelings out,” Sophie Thrasher-Bernhardt had told me that morning in the post office.
Shirley echoes this. “When you’ve been sexually abused, it’s hard to get over that. I was 11 when that happened. Then I was sent to Grollier Hall,” a notorious residential school in Inuvik, where the nuns tormented her mercilessly. “Even though you want to go to the washroom, you pee yourself, they won’t let you go to the washroom.”
“It’s water under the bridge now, so I don’t want to talk about it. I talk to my counselor whenever I need to talk.”
“You’re doing good,” says John, patting her on the shoulder. “Still alive.”
Later, after the day shelter has closed at 5 p.m., I meet up with John. The Salvation Army kitchen doesn’t open until 7 p.m., so in the two-hour interim people hang out in the mall or cluster in bank lobbies. We head to KFC, where John often finds empty cups that are good for refills. Inside we meet one of his friends, who shows us a large steak tucked inside his jacket.
“I borrowed it from the Co-Op,” he tells us with a wink.
“We’re not stealing, we’re borrowing,” he says.
The street community shoplifts a lot, John tells me. Sometimes 15 or so people gather for big cookouts at one of the tent camps in the bushes around town. Each person is responsible for “borrowing” an ingredient.
It’s not so much about hunger, John says. Between the day shelter and the Salvation Army he’s reasonably well-fed, and he’s made up to $120 in a day panhandling and returning empties. He also makes a buck or two here and there shoveling snow and doing odd jobs in the summer.
We part ways around 6 p.m. John says he’s planning to spend the night in a new stairwell he’s found, though he can’t find the nail he uses to break into buildings. But he’ll figure something out. He hasn’t survived this long on Yellowknife’s frozen streets without being resourceful.