As part of Black History Month, CAEH presents the story of Floriane Ethier, Data Advisor, Policy and Data Impact, Built for Zero Canada.
Warning: this content is intended for a mature audience and may cause strong emotional reactions, reader discretion is advised.
For me, Black History Month and my work in homelessness are intimately linked through personal experiences that are difficult to share.
I grew up in the American South, in Georgia and North Carolina, at a time when racial tensions were exploding.
As a pre-med student at university, I quickly realized that social inequalities were systemic. I told myself that the best way I could address these inequalities and keep moving forward was to attack the root of the problems and go to their origin.
At the same time, huge protests broke out in Ferguson following the murder of Mike Brown by a police officer. Despite witnesses who saw Mike Brown holding his hands high in the air and shouting “Don’t shoot”, the officer shot at him twelve times, hitting him six times. In the end, the officer was cleared of all charges leading to fiery protests in Ferguson and across the country.
I participated in these protests and what I saw on the front lines of these gatherings was that, even though there was always a human shield made up of allies or White people attempting to protect Black people, it was always Black bodies which were brutalized by the police in the end, who were arrested and who were chased. A few times we got chased and pushed around too.
When I say “we”, I’m talking about the little group we formed, me and my partner in all things, Blake.
Blake was my friend, my companion, my accomplice, we were together for everything. I was very involved in the queer movement during these years, defending queer initiatives and LGBTQ rights. Blake was an openly trans black man and that didn’t sit well with his family, who espoused more traditional values. Blake’s family had kicked him out and he found himself in a very precarious living situation while having to affirm his identity, it put unimaginable pressure on his mental health.
Despite this, he was the first Trans Homecoming King in the state, and he got a great sense of accomplishment from this recognition. To be named king or queen, a student had to raise the most money for charity, and Blake had raised the most money for Mothering Across Continents – an organization that built schools in Sudan. Blake believed that no one should be afraid to be who they want to be, and that everyone should have the same right to an enjoyable high school experience.
But things took a turn for the worse in university when Blake was invisibly homeless, moving from one friend’s couch to another. Unfortunately, this kind of couchsurfing was nothing out of the ordinary in our circle of queer friends. We did a lot of couchsurfing and resource sharing because people were getting kicked out of their homes left and right. This had a huge impact on our mental health. Sadly, the day came when Blake ended his life.
It’s crazy, it’s heavy. The daily stress, the daily trauma, that was the reality for a lot of people in my network in those days. And on top of being homeless, Blake was no longer at university for mental health reasons, so he no longer had access to university resources.
In his will, Blake named me as executor and wanted his funeral to be held in his name. But his parents refused, and instead wanted the funeral to be in the name they had given their child at birth. But my parents intervened, giving me an ultimatum: either I complied with Blake’s parents’ wishes, or I would be left without a home, I chose the latter. Partly to mourn the loss and start afresh, I moved to Quebec, where I continued my studies and spent a year in the woods. Then I joined the Old Brewery Mission team as a data quality assurance officer. The crazy thing is that I didn’t even realize I had experienced homelessness myself in North Carolina until I started working at the Old Brewery Mission in Montreal.
Today I work with the fabulous team at the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness in their Built for Zero program, which aims to reduce and eliminate systemic homelessness. My personal life and my work have constantly intersected in a long journey where my commitment to denouncing injustice and the well-being of those around me are at the heart of everything I do. With my friends, partners, and colleagues, I’m gradually building a world Blake would have been proud of and trying to spark systemic change.
If you or someone you loved is experiencing mental health problems or is in a difficult situation, there is help available:
Trans Lifeline (English & Spanish)