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Leaving Saskatoon: police mourn homeless drunk they considered a friend

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SASKATOON - He was one of the most recognizable residents in Saskatoon and some people consider the Prairie city a little different now that he's gone.

Alvin Cote wasn't a well-known politician, businessman or hockey player, but a ragged, homeless alcoholic whose tough talk would easily melt into a hearty chuckle and a big smile short on teeth.

He spent that past couple of decades living in Saskatoon. He could be seen curled up on floor of a bank foyer, sleeping on park benches or reading worn copies of National Geographic in the drunk tank.

He died April 19, a few days shy of his 60th birthday.

Saskatoon police officers are still talking about his death, even though they considered it an inevitable fate. It's believed Cote had been arrested more times for public drunkenness than anyone else in the city's history. Some officers put the tally at close to 1,000.

Although his obituary does not list an official cause of death, police say Cote was in hospital with pneumonia when he died.

Downtown beat officer Const. Derek Chesney was surprised and saddened when he heard the news. He saw the man almost every day over the past five years.

"It's not often that you can arrest somebody on multiple occasions and end up being friends with them. But such was the case with Alvin," Chesney recently wrote on his official police blog, Cops and Bloggers.

The officer confesses that he had a good cry after writing the online tribute. He fights back tears again as he talks on the phone about the important life lesson Cote taught him.

"You realize that people can fall through the cracks," says Chesney. "And just as much as a good person can have a bad day, things can happen to people in their lives where they end up going on a path that perhaps they didn't choose."

Cote was from the Cote First Nation in the Kamsack area, east of Saskatoon near the Manitoba boundary. He was carted off as a child to a residential school on a neighbouring reserve and suffered years of abuse, says Chesney.

He says Cote never talked about it, but the abuse likely set him on his destructive path. Cote has a sister in Saskatoon and she tried to look after Cote for a while, says Chesney. But he wouldn't stop drinking.

Chesney remembers meeting Cote for the first time in the winter of 2009 outside the old train station downtown. Chesney had just earned his badge and saw the man with a scraggly beard tapping and flexing his arms, yelling his catch-phrase: "I'm a fighter."

Chesney calmed him down by asking, "I heard you were a lover, not a fighter."

"Well, I'm that too," Cote laughed.

Chesney and his partner then put Cote in their cruiser and, as they were heading back to the police station, Cote knocked on the dividing window with $5 in his hand. He said he was hungry. Chesney ran into a McDonald's and got him two double cheeseburgers. Cote happily devoured his meal during the rest of the ride.

Chesney says he and many other officers looked out for Cote. They checked on him at night and made sure he had enough to eat. Sometimes, when Cote was hanging out on his usual bench in the public lobby of the police station, officers changing shifts would hand him their lunches as they walked by.

One time, when Cote was in detention on his birthday, staff rummaged up a cupcake and stuck a candle on top. "They actually had everybody on key and everybody else in cells sang Happy Birthday. He blew the candle out through the bars."

Chesney says he last saw Cote a few weeks before he died, sitting outside a Tim Hortons. Chesney patted him on the back and they ended their chat the way they always did.

"OK, Bud. See you later," Chesney said.

"You will," Cote replied.

Chesney says he and other officers have made their way in recent weeks to the home of Cote's sister to drop off sympathy cards and kind words about the man they miss. Some even say they thought of him as family.

But the police aren't the only ones mourning Cote. Chesney's blog has received hundreds of clicks and comments from people who had seen Cote on the streets, even though they never knew his name.

A McDonald's manager wrote about how she will miss waking Cote up outside the restaurant in the mornings and asking him to move along. Another woman said she'll miss buying him lunch. One man talked about how he once saw Cote sleeping inside a bank foyer. He slipped some money under the pile of clothes the man was using as a pillow.

"Sounds like this guy may have been an angel in disguise?" wrote a woman named Amy. "He seems to have brought out the best in humanity."

Const. Robbie Taylor often sat and had coffee with Cote. He laughs as he recalls his favourite stories about the man, like the one about how Cote used to wear a second-hand sweater from the Salvation Army. On the front it read, "What the world's greatest mom looks like."

Then there was the time when Cote pitched a fit in detention because officers gave him a magazine with singer Anne Murray on the cover. "I hate her!" he ranted.

Taylor says Cote loved to read but was always losing or breaking his glasses. So officers usually grabbed him glasses from boxes of used, donated pairs that were supposed to go to Africa.

Taylor once gave Cote an amateur eye exam. He had him read an oatmeal box while trying on different glasses. If he squinted, Taylor had him try on another pair. The ones Cote liked best were large and red and made him look like TV talk show host Sally Jessy Raphael. Cote suspected they were women's glasses but he still tucked them away in his pocket.

"I still have a couple of pairs in my locker. They were ready to go if he broke them again."

Cote was such a character that a worker at the police detention centre sketched his picture, put his mug on some T-shirts and gave them to other staff. Orders for more are now rolling so people will have something to remember him by.

The workers tried to give one of the T-shirts to Cote last year for Christmas but he didn't want it. He grumbled that he looked too much like Santa Claus.

Cote's celebrity grew after reporters at the local newspaper, the Saskatoon StarPhoenix, spent months piecing together the details of his life. The resulting feature netted the daily a National Newspaper Award nomination.

Even Saskatoon's police chief knew Cote. Clive Weighill recalls seeing him at a Tim Hortons just a few weeks before he died. Weighill slipped him some cash.

"I think most people thought I was telling him to leave but I was just giving him a five dollar bill so he could go get himself something to eat."

Weighill says a study completed last year tracked Cote and 22 other homeless people with substance abuse problems. It showed that they cost the city $2.8 million over one year in policing, ambulance and hospital costs.

That's why police, health officials and other agencies hope to build a wellness centre in the city to house the group. Weighill says it's a more dignified solution than sticking them in police cells.

The centre could also provide faster access to treatment services, but Weighill concedes some people just don't want help.

Chesney says he did everything he could for Cote. "I couldn't make him sober up. I couldn't bring him home and put him in my basement and give him a bath. He lived the way he wanted to and you almost have to respect somebody for that."

Some officers say they would have gone to Cote's funeral but he was buried on his home reserve some 350 kilometres away. There's talk of a local memorial, but nothing has been organized.

Chesney hopes the bench in the police lobby that Cote sat on for countless hours will be decorated with a plaque in his name and moved into the new police station that's under construction. That way Cote will always be there.

"He was a fighter. He was a survivor. And he'll be remembered."

— By Chris Purdy in Edmonton

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