It was a mild winter when Pierre Gregoire, just 3 ½ years old, and his infant sister came to the two-storey house that would become one of his many homes.

The boy with the infectious smile and gentle heart immediately won over Joe and Gloria Curotte, the foster parents who loved and bonded with the child they would come to consider a son.

“He had the biggest grin,” his mother, Gloria, said, remembering that first day.

“This little boy is not going to give us a hard time, look how happy he is.”

For the next 25 years, Gregoire was a source of enormous joy and pride, as well as pain, as his struggle with addiction and his desire to wander took him away from that house, to Labrador and Montreal and finally to Toronto.

“Pierre never left us. In my mind, at least, he thought of us every night,” Gloria said, speaking to the Star from their home on the Kahnawake reserve south of Montreal.

“Pierre was our boy. Pierre belonged here with us.”

Gregoire died on Feb. 15, in a bathroom at a KFC in Toronto, shortly after injecting heroin police suspect contained fentanyl. The powerful drug is linked to a rising number of deaths among intravenous drug users across the country.

He was 28.

His story, but not his name, was published amid what activists and allies have identified as an ongoing crisis of shelter capacity and addiction services in Toronto. He was said to have walked away from a downtown drop-in centre, where he was fed by welcoming staff, but told it was too full to allow him to lie down and sleep.

On Wednesday morning, a memorial service was held at West Neighbourhood House, a drop-in centre and community hub at the corner of Queen and Bathurst Sts. Nearly 50 people gathered in a circle of burgundy-cushioned chairs under large feathered dream catchers hanging overhead.

A worker handed out printed programs with Gregoire’s beaming face. One man, who arrived early, pressed it to his lips.

Elder Vern Harper asked everyone to come forward as he explained the importance of the circle, a place where they were all invited to step in, to heal and to honour Gregoire.

Harper started with a prayer, everyone rising to their feet, the final words echoing around the circle in murmured response.

By his father’s account, Gregoire’s time with them was filled with love and support, games of hacky sack and summers in a pool Joe put in the backyard.

“We had anywhere from 10 to 12 kids in the yard constantly,” Joe told the Star, on the phone from the house he built. “To me, he was a typical boy growing up, he had a good life, he had lots of friends and, like I said, as a parent it is hard to see this.”

At the memorial, Joe was the first to stand. “I raised him,” he said, then described a boy who could “run like the wind,” loved hockey, baseball and excelled at lacrosse.

He also loved riding dirt bikes, often breaking them and bringing them home for his father to fix. He snuck alcohol as a teen, as many kids do, but didn’t really begin to struggle until a few years later, they said.

Gregoire was one of nine children the Curotte family, who are Mohawk, fostered over a decade, some of whom they adopted.

“God knew there were children out there that needed a mother, and I was Pierre’s mother. He gave him to me,” Gloria said. “I got my wish. I had my children and I am proud of them.”

Reuniting Gregoire with his birth mother, Angela Gregoire, whom he loved deeply, was always the goal, Gloria said.

About four years after he arrived at their house he did go back to live with Angela, but they were separated again. He was then placed with a second foster family, close to Joe and Gloria’s house, and then back with the Curotte family.

Gregoire was part of the Innu Nation and many members of his large family live on the Sheshatshiu reserve, in Labrador, including Angela, who spoke with the Star on Saturday, the day of her son’s funeral.

“We love him very much and will miss him very much. I have never forgotten him. We are lighting a candle for him since he passed,” she said.

Angela spoke of a deep bond with her eldest son, whom she named after her father and who carried a Bible she gave him. She thanked Joe and Gloria and his Toronto friends for caring for him.

As a young man, Gregoire did return to Labrador and during that time, they “got back that connection,” Angela said. Still, he decided to move to Toronto to go to school and pursue his dream of becoming a chef.

Gregoire’s life in the city did not turn out as he had wanted, but he hadn’t given up hope.

In a video about life on the street posted last fall by an independent filmmaker, Gregoire said he tried to seek help for his addictions but there was “too much Jesus.”

He said firmly he had never been driven from home and blamed himself for “doing wrong.” He described what it means to be homeless and survive and that he saw the cup as “always half full.”

“Even when you meet the bad people, there’s always that good person that’s like right behind them that’s willing to talk to you.”

He dreamed of being heard one day as a musician.

“You’re going to see me in like three years, maybe two if I work really hard. But yeah, you’re going to see me,” he said.

“I’ll push forward to do it because I already feel it.”

When asked to recount his childhood and the people who raised him, Gregoire talked about Joe and Gloria.

“They’re my foster parents, but yeah, they’re my parents,” he said.

They were good to him, he said. “Amazing.” And he knew they loved him “with all their hearts.”

“You loved them?” the interviewer asked.

“Yes,” he replied without hesitation.

Several years after Gregoire left, Gloria planted a red maple for him in her yard. It grew perfectly straight.

During one of his visits, it was clear he had been drinking. She walked him over and placed his hand on the trunk.

“This is your tree,” she told him. “I planted it for you. I want you to go straight like this tree.”

They tried many times to reach him, she said.

Gregoire wrote his family three letters that his mother calls a “true confession” and in which he shared his deep love for them and apologized for taking money, or drinking, and pledged to make good.

“He did have a good home,” Gloria said. “He never wanted for anything. He was given it, because he deserved it.”

That included guitar lessons to encourage a musical talent she described as a true gift.

One Christmas, Gregoire arrived with nothing, just a bag of small gifts.

“Those are the moments that stand out. What he was about. That was his quality,” she said.

During the memorial, Gloria looked around the room at friends her son had made. Her son, Iohahi:io, and daughter Lisa (Watshennon:ni) were next to her. There were front-line workers there too in the crowd from St. Felix, the drop-in centre that provided soup and shelter on many occasions. Maybe you knew about us, she said, that he had a family.

Heads around the circle nodded.

When those friends shared emotional memories, Gloria encouraged them if they struggled to speak, guided them through their stories or offered comfort if they became overwhelmed.

“He is with you in spirit. Ask him to help you,” she said to one young man.

In turn, they shared how Gregoire had become part of their family on the street, sharing conversation, laughs and a “brotherhood” with two young men.

“A beautiful kid,” one friend said, raising his voice so that Gloria could hear him.

“He’s no different than me,” he said. “It could have been me.”

Gloria said she at first had been scared to speak to the crowd.

“I wanted to say the right things,” she said. “I didn’t want to offend anybody in that room because I am looking at faces I don’t know, but I was looking at Pierre in that room.”

Throughout that day, independent of one another, three women — one black, one white, one indigenous — approached to tell her their names.

“She told me that she was Pierre’s street mom,” Gloria said of one encounter. “Then another, she did the same.”

So, says the woman who raised the little boy with the wide smile: “Pierre had a lot of mothers. Pierre had a mother of every colour, of every nation. They took care of him, too, however which way they did.”

At the end of the service, Elder Harper tried to articulate the pain of losing a son, speaking of his own losses, and of the devastating legacy of residential schools and government actions meant to “de-feather” them.

“Our children should not go ahead of us,” he said. “But we don’t have a say on that.”

When it was over, those gathered helped dismantle the circle of chairs and set up long tables to share a meal.

On Sunday, his family in Kahnawake will hold a feast to mark the 10 days after his death — the time, they said, Gregoire had to visit his loved ones and finish his business on Earth.

They will set a place at the head of the family table, serve his favourite foods and fill a plate for him.

Gregoire would be there in spirit, his father said.

Then they will tell him it is okay now to leave.

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