The following is an excerpt from the interview I did with Ariel Harper, an artist, performer, and grassroots media producer. She talks a bit about her time living in Montreal and engaging in artistic work with people experiencing homelessness:
AH: My oldest son was born in this period. He was a great surprise to me because I’d been told by a doctor that it was almost impossible for me to conceive so I wasn’t especially careful about birth control. His biological father was horrified so we had parted company, because my parents had a very bad marriage and I wasn’t going to force anyone to stick around who wasn’t into the project. I certainly wasn’t going to do that to my child. So, suddenly I was this new sociological critter; I was a single mom. Which, not quickly, but for extended periods became a single mom on welfare, which was very, very illuminating. Now I will say this, in that period, which was the middle ’80s, the Quebec welfare system was one of the most generous in the country, and the garderies, the day care system, had just been set up. That was free, in those days, for single mothers. It was incredibly, incredibly fortuitous because I couldn’t have afforded it and I couldn’t have done much of anything if I hadn’t done that.
I was aware of other people in my situation who were having a hard time, but for some reason, I suppose because I was wrapped up in my kid and my life and trying to be some kind of an artist, I wasn’t really – there are fallow periods. Then in 1993, just around the time that the Chrétien government came in, there were incredible, incredible cutbacks to health care. You remember that, the first round of Martin. They closed long-term beds in the hospitals, which meant that suddenly mental patients were on the street. The homeless population in Montreal tripled, almost overnight. This old but new phenomenon of the soup kitchen came up, and the homeless shelter. There have been people who have been in that business forever, you know the people at the Old Brewery Mission, the people at the Salvation Army – those people had been doing extraordinary work forever, but suddenly the numbers were just astronomical for them and they were really overwhelmed. I was aware of this and thinking about it, and writing about it even. I was writing for a small newspaper on a PAIE program, “PAIE” being a make-work job. If you were on welfare you could get this job for this; you got two hundred dollars a week to do whatever you were doing. So I was writing about immigration policies, I was writing about cultural mosaics, I was writing about various things, and one of my interviews didn’t pan out.
Oh, sorry. I got ahead of my story. I’m way ahead of my story. Sorry about that. There were the cutbacks and I was aware of them but not really paying a whole lot of attention. Then our priest was murdered because he was gay. Well, not because; he was murdered by a gay prostitute, a male prostitute, and we didn’t know he was gay. He was a churchman’s churchman. He knew his stuff, in the very best tradition of High Anglican. He also was just a fine human being and a tremendously cultured and educated man, just a delight. I didn’t know him so, so well, but I loved the fact that he strongly believed that children should be allowed to receive communion as soon as they could ask for it, not to wait until they were confirmed as we were. I can remember my three year-old toddling up to the communion rail. At one point the host went down his jacket sleeve and Warren didn’t miss a beat, just fished it right out and put it where it was supposed to go. [laugh] He had been transferred to our parish away from his partner, who was a terribly unofficial partner, and nobody knew, because of course this doesn’t happen in the Anglican church, does it? Or at least didn’t. And everyone was so shocked – “Oh, this terrible, terrible thing.” But I kept thinking if the church didn’t have that stance on homosexuality, a) he’d be happy, and b) he’d be alive. So that went into my thinking. I grieved. I didn’t know him that well as a person, but I was walking around almost feeling as though my heart were breaking, and I couldn’t understand it. This was in that period when I was writing for this newspaper. I just couldn’t get any peace. I couldn’t sleep.
So one day on an interview I had set up was cancelled. I was near the Metro and I thought, well, I’ll go check out one of these soup kitchens, and I stumbled into Christ Church. It’s a beautiful church. What they did was they kept the church and sold the land underneath it, which gave them a trust fund, and so the mall, Le Cathedral, was born. They had a soup kitchen tucked into the stairs on the way into the mall. So I thought, “Well, I’ll go do a story, human interest, blah, blah, blah.”
I walked in and I said, “Can I help?”
They said, “Grab an apron.”
I worked really hard handing stuff out. The guy who had said, “Grab an apron,” said, “You don’t really have to talk to the men. You can stay back here and they’ll be…”
[loud] “What do you mean I don’t have to talk to the men?” Mostly men; there were one or two women. I went out and they were incredible. It was a whole other culture. I’d always thought it was just a dysfunction of the culture I was in, but, nope, there’s this whole other culture. That may have been part of how they got there, but there they were. There were rules, there were hierarchies, there were incredibly poignant dramas. One guy at the Old Brewery Mission told me once, “There’s nobody here who doesn’t have a broken heart.”
So I just started volunteering there. That night I could sleep. When Warren died, I kept thinking about that Sam Spade quote, about when your partner dies you’re supposed to do something about it. That’s what I felt like; I couldn’t work that one out. But all of a sudden this was something I had to do. I heard an interview done on the radio of this group of artists who were forming to do shows for the homeless. I just burned up the phone lines trying to find them. I did find them and became part of Open City 2002, or Les production cité ouverte 2002. We had this formula. It was such a brilliant thing. The leader of this group was a man by the name of Glen Hilke, who was an actor and a director from the States who had been living in Canada for a while. He had at one point gone to Los Angeles. Are you familiar with the LAPD? I don’t mean the police department but the homeless project?
SN: No. Just the police department.
AH: In Los Angeles the situation is very different from what it is, certainly, in Montreal and, I imagine, in most Canadian cities. The homeless are not all over the city. They are in a square mile known as Skid Row. They really are. It’s almost as though they’re not allowed to leave. But in that square mile, because they’re all there, it’s really easy to organize them. There’s a guy whose name I can’t remember who formed the LAPD, the Los Angeles Poverty Department. They did plays about and for the homeless. They offered to artists all over North America, “Come and spend a month here. We’ll sort of look out for you, we’ll track you, but all you get is a quarter at the outset, and you make your way.” It was like a boot camp sort of survival thing for people. Glen had done this. His life had been transformed as a result. He came back and he was alight with this idea that art empowers, and if people are empowered, if they’re really hearing their own voices, then they have choices about their lives, they have choices about whether to be on the street or not. If you choose to be on the street then that’s because it’s your choice. You made it yours. That makes you powerful there, too. That part of it we didn’t tell the funders. [laugh] And it was a funny line, too, because you want to tell the people who are giving you money to eradicate something for which on one level you have a great deal of respect.
Having formed, we figured out what each of us did, and we were various things. Let’s see. We were a couple of actors – I’m both an actor and a musician so that was helpful. Several musicians. There were a couple of visual artists, a couple of writers. We went to the homeless shelter, and we said, “We’ll do a show for you for free, and take up a whole evening of programming and you don’t have to worry about it. If you like it, we’ll come back again. We ask from you three things. We ask that we be allowed to bring the media, we ask that if you really like what we’re doing that you write a letter of support, and we ask that we be allowed to have an open mike.” Because a lot of the shelters were so overwhelmed by the numbers that the only way they felt they could handle it was to be really, really heavy duty with the structure. No loose cannons there.
Miraculously, most of them agreed. We had this regular circuit. We’d go to the Old Brewery Mission, we’d go to Welcome Hall, we’d go to Le Chainon which was a shelter for abused women. We had jugglers. Journalists started coming, because it was the flavour of the month, and writing it up. We were getting tired, because there weren’t that many of us. So we went to the Metros where there were Metro musicians and Metro performers and we said, “Hey, look. We can’t give you any money but it’s a great gig, wonderful audience, good publicity for free, and a chance to feel good about yourself.” And they came. We had this roster of artists. We did these homeless cafés, as we called them. Then we’d go back to the politicians with the write-ups and the letters and we’d say, “Give us money. See what we’re doing? Here’s how it works.” And they did, incredibly. Some of the churches gave us money. The city didn’t at first and eventually they did. We grew. More artists wanted to be part of this. Then Multiculturalism Canada, as it was then, did an extraordinary thing: they gave us a PAIE program, where we would be paid to be artists, which was just fabulous. I mean, up until then, the only PAIE program to be an artist was to be on welfare. But you worked, you did this, you did what you did. We started attracting homeless artists with the open mike. They got on the PAIE program, so we started having wonderful press and better funding.
We went into schools. We started an Artist in the Schools program because they had cut arts funding in schools. So for roughly the price of, maybe even a little less, a salary of having one full time art teacher there, you could have six of us. It was a trimester system, so two per trimester, of different disciplines who were working together somewhat, so the kids got a chance to experiment in all kinds of media. That was pretty successful.
Then we branched into community development. That was my area. My title was Community Liaison. Liaison is a word that comes up over and over and over again in my career, I guess because of the early training; I like making connections that no one has thought to make. As far as I’m concerned there are very few people, there are very few organizations or institutions, who couldn’t find some common ground if they really let themselves get creative. So we did that for a while.
Then I began to feel that we were getting too big, that we were making too many promises to people that we weren’t even sure how we were going to do. You get tired of being stretched with a tightrope that you’re not sure you can get to the other side of. I think that integrity has to be a cornerstone of what you’re doing, because what else do you have? I’m not saying that Open City was corrupt or anything like that, I’m not saying that at all, but I think we overreached. A lot of the artists started feeling exploited. It became something very bureaucratic, as opposed to this terribly innovative bunch and tight knit. So I left.