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Choose Life

Mike Aiken

When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? Or naked, and clothed thee? /

Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? /

And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, /

Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

Matthew 26:36-40

Harvey stands on the street corner, his grey leather jacket muted against the corrugated concrete wall of the National Arts Centre. On a cold winter’s night, he has found warmth next to a heating vent and remains unnoticed by NAC audience members.

His silhouette against the wall could easily make a statement about the plight of Native Canadians in the inner city. His slouching shoulders weighed heavy by many nights without shelter mark a stark contrast with the upright countenance of the arts patrons inside.

Hidden away in the corner, few, if any, notice him or leave him change. But, perhaps that’s the idea. To be visibly homeless downtown is to attract trouble from the city police, municipal employees, downtown merchants, or other vagrants.

While we are told to not judge a person on the surface, Harvey’s features speak a thousand words. Originally from the remote regions of northern Quebec, his native heritage is clearly visible in his features. Also visible are the many scars he has accumulated along the road from his hometown to the Nation’s Capital. On this night, like many others, he has a few fresh cuts and bruises from his most recent scuffle. In turn, they will add to his collection of scars.

And yet, as rough as he is on the outside, Harvey is soft-spoken. He remembers a voice, a face, a past meeting. He enjoys telling jokes or stories in his native French.

His full laugh, though, is marked by years of tobacco and alcohol, not to mention the effects of many years of cold weather on his lungs.

His rough hands are always ready for a handshake. They are thick hands calloused from years of hard labor, even though it has likely been years since he has worked steadily with those hands. His unsteady walk is a testament to an uneven diet of Listerine and whatever food he can find from soup kitchens and handouts. More and more, solid food is becoming a luxury, since he is nearly always sick with something.

When Harvey asks for an escort to Ottawa’s detox centre, he is more like a horse to the barn. He knows the way by memory, but still needs a helping hand.

While there is purpose in his gait, there is still a sadness that marks his spirit. Part of it, at least, comes from a long-time habit he can’t seem to break. While he has the will to go on fighting, he has yet to summon the courage to purge his system and soul of a poison that will definitely kill him sooner, rather than later.

On this night, he shows me the fresh bottle of Listerine he has purchased with donations from passersby. For tonight, while he is on his way to detox, he is willing to let it go.

Tonight, he is so sick that he has no fight left. Tomorrow, after a night’s rest, a good meal, and a dose of his daily medication, may be another story. However, for tonight, he is willing to face-up to his reality and choose life.