Siasi Tullaugak died sometime before dawn on Aug. 29. By the time the sun rose, her body was hanging from a porch in downtown Montreal, half a block from Saint Catherine Street. Her feet dangled only a foot or two above the sidewalk.

The porch had the wrought-iron railings that are typical of Montreal. It was raised, like a low balcony, leaving enough space underneath to accommodate the entrance to a basement apartment. Curved steps led up one side, and on the opposite side, the top railing was screwed to a homemade wooden planter full of flowers.

Tullaugak’s body hung from the side of the porch that held the planter, the police reportedly told the homeowners. That was part of why it didn’t make sense when police deemed her death to be a suicide.

If she had walked up the steps, attached a noose to the railing and then climbed over it, she would have crushed the flowers. But they were untouched.

Yet there was no way to get to the railing from below, either. Tullaugak was around five feet tall. At age 27, she was often mistaken for a high school student. Perhaps she'd climbed up on something, like a chair? If she had, there was no sign of it the following morning.

Tullaugak left no note, and her friends and family immediately insisted she hadn’t been suicidal. Montreal police closed the case two days later. They told media that Tullaugak had hung herself from the balcony of her apartment.

However, police knew that the owners of the house where the body was found are a middle-aged white couple. They had no connection to Tullaugak, who was homeless. After waking up that morning to find crime-scene tape around their porch, the couple spoke briefly to police.

Two weeks later, the husband of the couple was still mulling over what had happened. “I think about all of this. You know?” he said. “I think it’s not possible for a girl to hang herself here.”

His wife was more emphatic. “No no,” she said. “No way. It’s physically impossible.”

For police to call the death a suicide, she said, “means that they really didn’t even try to understand what happened that night. That's the worst thing. She didn't die here. She was dead when she arrived here. Somebody hanged her here.”

Police reopened Tullaugak’s case that week, 15 days after they had closed it, saying they were examining new information. Since then, the force has declined to provide details of the case or their work so far, saying they couldn’t discuss an open investigation.

In partnership with the Echo Foundation, National Observer has launched a new series examining the extraordinary risks and challenges faced by Inuit people living in Quebec. Video by Clothilde Goujard

'Very small, very innocent-looking'

Family remember Siasi — the name is the Inuktitut version of 'Jessie' — as a “hyperactive” child, a girl who was constantly talking and cracking jokes. She was inseparable from her older sister.

She was from the town of Puvirnituq, Nunavik — the Inuit homeland of northernmost Quebec. That had much to do with how she died, according to those who knew her in her last months. But they say people outside those few blocks around Chomedey Street would find it hard to understand exactly why.

For decades, Inuit have been coming to Montreal from Nunavik. Sometimes they come for an education, sometimes they come for health care. They may return home unscathed. But sometimes they merely come for a visit — and end up staying for years, even decades, living in conditions they seem unable to escape.

When Montrealers first began to see Inuit panhandling on city streets in the 1980s, journalists and researchers explored their plight. Many Inuit in that generation had lived through ordeals common to other Indigenous people, including being sent away for school.

Less attention has been paid to a more recent generation of arrivals — young Inuit like Tullaugak, in their teens and twenties, who often end up in dire circumstances within just a few months of arriving in the city.

Siasi Tullaugak, Inuk, Nunavik, Montreal
Siasi Tullaugak's death in August 2017 in Montreal was initially deemed a suicide, but police are now investigating the matter further. Photo from Facebook

This younger cohort also faces serious social problems at home. But there is another distinct, disturbing pattern in their fates. The details of Siasi Tullaugak’s life in Montreal echoed that of other young Inuit women, from the people with whom they had fateful encounters, to the marks on their bodies, to the way they died.

In fact, just two days after Tullaugak’s death in August, the body of another local 27-year-old Inuk woman was found, also hanging.

The circumstances of Sharon Baron’s death, in her apartment in the suburb of Dorval, point more clearly to suicide. The two women barely knew each other, and the timing of their deaths seems to be a coincidence. Still, there is a vital link between their cases.

Tullaugak wasn’t new to Montreal in 2017. She had lived in the city a few years earlier, for almost a year. At that time, she and a boyfriend had an apartment in the Plateau neighbourhood, according to Sean French, a friend of Tullaugak's who lives near Montreal. But when Tullaugak came back in 2017, things went differently — and downhill — with a speed that stunned those around her.

The first time Cahill Rooney saw Tullaugak, last winter, he wondered why a shy, healthy-looking teenager, as he took her to be, was living on the street. She was “very, very small, very, very innocent-looking,” says Rooney, a high-school principal who lives on Chomedey Street. Over time, Tullaugak would often chat with Rooney and ask for a loonie or a cigarette.

“I'd usually say, ‘Where have you been, how's your day been?’” he says. “She'd say, ‘Okay, not too bad,’” though she often said she was hungry.

It’s unclear why Tullaugak came back to Montreal in 2017. (Her family did not respond to a request for an interview.) At home in Puvirnituq she had racked up minor charges.

But everyone who knew her agrees that her first move upon arriving this year was to seek out the sister with whom she had been so close as a child. By some accounts, she was trying to fetch her sister and bring her home. Either way, she headed for a certain downtown corner.

The intersection of Atwater and Saint Catherine streets has a mall on one corner, and opposite it, a park called Cabot Square. Every night, people sit in groups in the park, often speaking Inuktitut.

Inuit have been gathering at the park since the 1980s. At any given time, some of the park’s denizens are living on the street. Others are just visiting: When people from Nunavik fly south for medical treatment, or to accompany someone else receiving treatment, they have typically stayed at the YMCA across the street (a new residence in a suburb recently opened).

The way for Tullaugak to meet her sister was to go to Cabot Square. And talking to her sister this year usually meant also talking to a man who hovers by her shoulder, like a shadow.

Cabot Square, Montreal,
Siasi Tullaugak was often seen at Cabot Square in Montreal, pictured here on March 31, 2006, with a man known for targeting young Inuit women. Photo courtesy of Sachamd on Flickr Creative Commons

Tullaugak met this man very shortly after she arrived. The first time Rooney saw her with him, his heart sank.

“Seeing she was hanging out with [that man]… I felt that her chance of being raped was almost a sure thing,” he says.

However, Tullaugak continued to seem fairly healthy — always cleanly dressed and seemingly sober when he spoke to her, Rooney says. What struck him was how single-mindedly she began to seek money. Within a few months, if she saw men approach during a conversation with Rooney, she would peel off and solicit them. As the summer wore on, she seemed to get more anxious, once asking Rooney, 75, if he’d pay for sex.

In late August, she vanished for about a week, and then appeared one day in front of Rooney's patio.

“I just said, ‘Oh hi, how are you, how have you been?’” he says. “And she instantly answered, 'Well, I'm still alive.'" A few days later, she was dead.

A trademark burn from a crack pipe

Some of the details of Sharon Baron’s life illustrate the world Tullaugak walked into.

In 2013, Baron was about 22 years old. She had been living in Dorval for five years. Then came the night that changed her life.

Sharon Baron smiles for a photo in Nunavik, Que. near Kuujuaq. Photo courtesy of Brent Meeko Griffin

Baron “was a calm person, very shy and reserved,” says Brent Meeko Griffin, her boyfriend at the time. Meeko Griffin, an Inuk former pilot for Air Inuit, had met Baron in Nunavik when she was 17, and she agreed to come live with him in Montreal.

Life was good, for a while. The couple explored the city by bike, and went to parks and movies. Baron started planning to go back to school for her high school equivalency.

Meeko Griffin recalls that when he proposed spending summer at his family's camp in Kuujjuarapik, Baron jumped at the idea, telling him she had loved camp life as a child.

But camp is not always what it used to be. One summer about five years ago, a polar bear mauled Baron's mother at the family camp near Kangiqsualujjuaq — an unusual attack by an animal made more unpredictable by climate change.

Baron's mother was flown to Montreal for treatment, and, fatefully, was housed across from Cabot Square.

Baron visited her mother regularly. She was waiting for the night bus to Dorval around 1 a.m. one night, at the corner of Atwater and Saint Catherine, when a man walked up and started chatting with her. He then offered her crack, says Meeko Griffin.

“It’s definitely someone I didn’t know,” he says. “And I did get the feeling it was someone she didn't know either.”

Though Baron wasn’t in the habit of doing drugs, let alone such a hard drug, Meeko Griffin says he’s not surprised that she and other young Inuit women would try it. “Up north… we shake hands with strangers, everyone that's new in town,” he says. “That led her to be curious, to be approachable.”

“They’re young and they wanted to experience the city and they’re not so afraid to try something new. And in this case Sharon tried crack.”

Baron didn't come home that night. After searching the area for days, Meeko Griffin found her near Cabot Square. He never found out exactly where she was for the week she'd been away. She came home, but she wasn’t same, he says — she constantly returned downtown, she was loud and argumentative, she lost a huge amount of weight and amassed bruises all over her body.

From her evasive answers to his questions, he realized she was doing sex work.

Sharon Baron, Inuk, Nunavik, Montreal
Photo of Sharon Baron from Facebook

“She was the complete opposite of herself,” he says. Within six months, she moved out and began living on the street.

Once, Meeko Griffin invited her over, along with the man she called her new boyfriend, who was not Inuk. They said they had met when he supplied Baron with drugs. Another person Baron later said she “hustled with” was the man who met the Tullaugak sisters.

That man is a fixture around Cabot Square. “He’s been in this area for 20 years and he’s been doing the same thing for 20 years — basically corralling young Inuit to do whatever it is they do to help them get high,” says John Tessier, an outreach worker at the Open Door shelter.

For the man to profit from them, however, the women must first become addicted. An employee of a bar on Saint Catherine has seen the man repeatedly approaching young Inuit women during the first few nights of their visits to Montreal.

“He starts to talk to them in the street, then finally he goes with them to the bar and buys them a beer,” says the bar employee, whose interview was translated from French, and who didn’t want to be identified for fear of losing his job. “Often people want weed or things like that, and he offers it. And it starts like that.”

Usually the man picks young, small women who already do mild drugs, and he offers more, eventually asking to be paid back, say several people who have watched him operate for years. As the women earn money through sex, they turn it over to him and he buys crack for the group, himself included.

Within two or three months, the women typically have started to visibly change. The relationship with the pimp changes too, says the bar employee. “I’ve seen him hit women,” he says. “When one Inuk became disrespectful… he got a little crazy.”

One Inuk woman who used to be under the pimp's control agreed to talk about the experience via Facebook messages, saying she no longer lives in Montreal and is no longer afraid of him.

In her account, the man gave crack to the Inuit girls he met, waited until they were high and then raped them. The violence he meted out included slapping the women and burning them with a crack pipe.

“It’s to say that he was with this girl by burning,” she explained.

His trademark burn was “two lines from a crack pipe,” often on a victim's arm, she said. She still has the scars of her own branding.

She cut off the online interview after recalling those two memories, saying she was unable to continue.

The man’s court records include at least two charges for assault with a weapon and one for conspiracy to commit murder.

Concerns about young Inuit women’s safety have grown enough in recent years to prompt a group of Montreal agencies to assemble a “welcome kit” that will be given to young people from Nunavik as soon as they step off their Air Inuit flights. The kit includes a warning about “people who will try to traffic you,” says David Chapman, director of the Open Door shelter.

“If you’re a pretty young Inuit woman and you're walking around these parts, there are people coming for you, without question,” he says.

Open Door Shelter director David Chapman says Inuit women face risks of trafficking and recruitment into sex work. Video by Clothilde Goujard

In the Cabot Square area, people describe two or three men who work like Tullaugak’s pimp, singling out Inuit women. None of them are Inuk.

Montreal police, while declining to speak about Baron's and Tullaugak’s cases, say prosecuting those who exploit Inuit women can be difficult.

“A lot of the time [the victims] are not coming forward, they feel isolated, they're vulnerable,” says Carlo DeAngelis, the forces’s aboriginal liaison officer. “The key is prevention,” he says, going on to point to a list of police efforts to work with community groups.

“If we could prevent them from being in a vulnerable situation when they come into the city, that would solve the problem,” he says. “You know, arrests are being done, [but] unfortunately, eventually they come back on the street or other individuals replace them.”

In the case of Sharon Baron, none of the people interviewed for this story could say exactly what she experienced during her four years downtown. But they all agreed that she never recovered. About a year ago, she returned to Dorval, making her home in a sunny one-bedroom apartment with a new boyfriend, Matthew Smith. She tried to get clean, but it was hard to stay away from Cabot Square.

During periods at home, she seemed to be trying to come to terms with her past, says Smith. Baron told him about the sex work she did downtown. When she was drunk, she began repeatedly mentioning her older sister, who had died in a house fire along with her children one Christmas Eve when Baron was a teenager.

The night Baron died, she and Smith were high on crack and vodka. He passed out; she went to a bar around the corner to meet friends. Staff there say she seemed her usual self.

The next thing Smith remembers, is “waking up in a hospital bed, crying and screaming. I thought it was a dream and hoped it was a dream.” Police told him that he had called 911 to report suicidal feelings. When they arrived, they found Baron hanging in their closet. She had left no note.

“I didn’t know she had wandered off into the closet,” he says. “I was totally and completely blacked out” — a common experience, he says.

Smith’s cellphone indeed showed a 10-minute call to 911. “The cops won’t tell me anything,” he says. “The case was closed in the first 24 hours, done and dusted.”

A week later, police came back for a statement from Smith, interviewing him for two hours about the day Baron died, and threatening him with a lie-detector test. They examined his phone records and told him they were “doing it for the coroner,” he says. Police didn’t respond to a request for comment on Baron’s case.

Smith says he has no doubt that Baron killed herself. “I know she missed her sister,” he says. “I’m pretty sure that’s why she did what she did.”

Rumours of a serial killer

If it didn't surprise some of those closest to her, Baron’s death still came as a shock in Cabot Square. There had been no news stories about Tullaugak’s death two days earlier, nor any police updates.

In the information vacuum, rumours flew — some of them clearly wrong. “She was probably shot to death last night on Chomedey,” Open Door's Chapman told one man that morning, after someone whispered the news in his ear. “I don't have any more details. I don't know.”

When it emerged that police were treating both deaths as suicides, the rumours turned into a narrative — a serial killer or drug boss was murdering Inuk women and disguising the deaths as suicide.

“Are they going to attack me?” said an older woman at a candlelight vigil for the two women. “I sleep outside — are they going to attack me like those two? It’s so hard sometimes.”

The known details of Tullaugak’s last night suggest she was upset about something. She started the evening at Cabot Square, but around midnight she went into a bar on Saint Catherine Street, alone.

“She was usually happy,” says Annie Saviadjuk, another Inuk woman who was there. “That night she was angry, angry, angry. She wasn’t herself at all.”

Tullaugak often stopped by the bar to say hello, but never for more than a few minutes, says a bartender there. That night, Tullaugak stayed for two hours, crying occasionally. The bartender tried to cheer her up with a free beer, and asked what was wrong.

Tullaugak said she missed her cousin, who was due to have a baby. The bartender handed over her phone so Tullaugak could see photos of her family on Facebook.

“I didn’t really know her — I just know her from here,” says the bartender. “She really wanted to show me how she was up north.”

In one photo, Tullaugak was smiling and holding a rifle, ready to go hunting. Another showed Tullaugak as a baby, along with her sister and another child on a couch. When she saw this image, Tullaugak began crying again, says the bartender.

At one point in the evening, a man walked over — someone whom no one could identify, but whom Tullaugak seemed to know. They had an interaction and “she went stiff,” says the bartender. Tullaugak appeared to leave with the man at about 2 a.m.

There are six surveillance cameras in the bar, the employee says. “I’m surprised nobody came here to ask for the security video.”

Tullaugak spent the next couple of hours in the lobby of a known crackhouse on Du Fort Street before she was picked up by a man she knew, according to a friend in Montreal. The friend last saw Tullaugak around 2:30 a.m. and later stopped by Cabot Square, where she ran into a known john who regularly hires Inuit women. He had been providing Tullaugak with drugs and, often, a place to stay this summer, says the friend.

As the two chatted in Cabot Square that night, Tullaugak kept messaging the man, asking to be picked up. She didn’t explain why it was urgent. The man finally agreed, says Tullaugak’s friend, but he was annoyed.

“He was mad at her because Siasi [didn’t] give sex to him,” she says. “That's what he kind of told me – ‘You don't want sex? Why are you calling me?’ ”

According to a Montreal Police report on Tullaugak’s death obtained by Vice News, the police received a call that night saying that a man was “trying to force [Tullaugak] into an alley,” and that officers spoke with her sometime that night.

Hard to get a ticket home

Three weeks after Tullaugak’s death, her pimp was sitting by himself in a parking lot behind the house where her body was found. On his phone, he was blasting “Too Many Years,” a song by the rapper Kodak Black. When the song ended, he immediately hit replay.

“I wish that I could rewind,” he said, quoting the song's refrain. “People that you can’t get back.”

Tullaugak was “rambunctious, full of energy, spunky,” he said, adding that he was in love with her. “Neither [she nor Sharon] had any intention of dying anytime soon.”

He said he was nearby on the night when Tullaugak was attacked in the alley. He heard a scream, and ran up just after police arrived.

“I think it was probably an accident and they had to dispose of her a certain way,” he said of Tullaugak's death. “I heard that her neck was broken.”

When asked why, if it was an accident, anybody would have staged such a public suicide, he answered without a pause: “Because she was Inuit. That’s how society looks at Inuit. Like they’re suicidal. Like they’re garbage. The best way to dispose of an Inuit is to make it look like suicide.”

When asked if he could think of any similar cases, he said “Nunia.”

Nunia Grey was found hanging on Nov. 3, 2011, in the bathroom of her apartment near Atwater Street. Locals say the building is a crackhouse. She was 33 and left no note. Tessier of the Open Door says Grey had been part of the same “posse” that Tullaugak later joined, with the same pimp.

According to a coroner’s report, Grey's body was in such an advanced state of putrefaction by the time police were called that no toxicological analysis could be done. The death was ruled a suicide.

Grey’s aunt, who lives in Kuujjuaq, Nunavik's largest village, says she always wondered about the circumstances around her niece’s death, never able to accept that she would have killed herself.

“None of our family have ever believed that,” says the aunt, who did not want to be named.

Grey was a high-school graduate — rare in Nunavik — who came to Montreal to accompany a relative during surgery, and stayed. Grey had lost custody of her young sons, but when her aunt last saw her, about six months before her death, “she looked really good” and said she had stopped drinking, the aunt said.

Thousands of Indigenous women have gone missing or been murdered in Canada since about 1980 — as many as 4,000, according to the Native Women’s Association of Canada. But it’s unknown how many other deaths of Indigenous women, on top of those thousands, were recorded as suicide or accidents after investigations that relatives consider perfunctory. Carolyn Bennett, Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs, said last year that this was one of the main themes she heard from families while preparing for the national inquiry on the matter.

A vigil is held in Cabot Square, Montreal, for the deaths of Siasi Tullaugak and Sharon Baron on September 8, 2017. Screen shot from APTN video

The job of investigating police is difficult in such cases, and they don’t always go the extra distance required, according to Jessica Quijano of the Native Women's Shelter of Montreal. “It’s a lot harder to [investigate] when you’re with people who are living on the street, who might not always be sober when you want to question them,” she says. On top of that, “there’s perpetual stereotypes…that they would either commit suicide or have an overdose.”

If Tullaugak’s apparent suicide was staged, “I don’t think it was anything like some serial killer with an elaborate plan,” says Quijano. “I think it’s just really easy.”

Since Tullaugak and Baron died, a number of Inuit women in Montreal have flown back to Nunavik, or have been trying to.

Tullaugak herself had tried to do the same. About a month before she died, she and her sister asked staff at the Open Door for help getting to Puvirnituq. The shelter was trying to arrange it, says Tessier.

It can be harder than it would seem, he says. The tickets have to be sponsored by Nunavik authorities, which can be difficult to arrange. Often, the people who want to fly have lost their ID. That was one problem for the Tullaugak sisters.

Tessier cites a recent case where “we were trying to get a girl home who was being held hostage, almost.” Of women in this situation, he adds: “They’re being intimidated not to leave. Maybe the dealer will give them something for free…then it’s like ‘Oh, I gave you that for free, you’ve got to work. You’ve got to work it off.'”

Tullaugak and Baron barely knew each, only “enough to say hello to,” says Smith, Baron’s boyfriend. He says Baron would have been surprised by all the attention after her death. But in these cases, timing was everything.

“If they [died] a month apart, I doubt it would even be on the news, to be honest,” he says.

Editor's Note: This article was produced in collaboration with the Echo Foundation.