Confronted with the brutal side of Val d’Or, Nemaska drug counsellor Roger Orr decided not to turn away. Instead, he decided to record an intimate glimpse at the City of Gold’s impoverished underbelly.
While staying at the city’s Native Friendship Centre last summer, Orr said that he heard a scuffle not far away as he parked his car. When he went to investigate the commotion, he saw three white-francophone youths attacking Willie Hester, a Cree homeless person who passed later in the summer from unrelated causes.
“They were beating him up in that parking lot,” Orr recounted. “Kicking him in the head while he was totally helpless because he was intoxicated and laughing while doing it.”
While the police eventually broke up the attack, Orr said the event gave him the opportunity to reconnect with the man from his home community. “I was so surprised to see how level headed he was, despite being in that state,” said Orr.
Through talks with Hester and another Cree who had previously been a homeless addict, Orr decided to document their stories using his smartphone’s video function. Staying in Val d’Or to undergo physiotherapy for a back injury, the project began as a way to pass time but evolved into a serious project. While staying at the friendship centre, he was able to reconnect with some familiar faces.
The result is an unfiltered and intimate portrayal of Val d’Or’s lost souls, which Orr hopes will break down stereotypes while sharing the many fascinating stories that his subjects had to offer.
“I had always seen the many Algonquin and Cree people on the street in Val d’Or but because I would always be so busy running around and doing other things while there, I had never really had time before to sit around and talk to them,” Orr explained. “I was so busy while there that I had actually tended to avoid them in the past.”
While many Crees and other First Nations peoples flock to Val d’Or for various reasons, from schooling to shopping to attending business meetings, the city infrastructure also draws the homeless and addicted. With one of the lowest vacancy rates in the country, many of those with addictions who have fled their home communities end up on the streets, including Natives and non-Natives.
Orr spoke to many marginalized residents when they would come by the centre for coffee during the day. He discovered how “genuine” these street people were and realized that each of them had a story to tell.
“My cousin was also on the street and one time I drove by him and said to myself, what am I doing and why am I going the opposite way. He might need help. So, I picked him up and we started talking and it just started like that,” Orr recounted.
“He said (that the addiction) was living with a civil war within himself in terms of body, mind and spirit. I began to gain an understanding as to why he was there.”
Orr says he will soon start posting the video series on his Facebook page. Stay posted for further updates on nationnews.ca