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The Downtown Eastside Power of Women Group is based at the Downtown Eastside (DTES) Women’s Centre. We are women from all walks of life who are working poor, homeless or on social assistance; and we are all living in extreme poverty.
Many us of are single mothers or have had our children apprehended due to poverty; most of us have chronic mental or physical health issues, for example HIV and Hepatitis C infections; many of us have drug or alcohol addictions; and the majority of us have experienced and survived sexual violence and mental, physical, spiritual and emotional abuse. Indigenous members among us are affected by the legacy of residential schools and a history of colonization and racism.
One of the many issues we are concerned with are the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympic Games, which we have seen increase poverty and policing in the DTES, Canada’s poorest postal code.
Below, accounts from Power of Women members Stella August and Phillipa Ryan are accompanied by an illustration by member Priscillia May. Her image depicts the broken promises of the 2010 Olympics and the impacts of gentrification and criminalization in the DTES.
The DTES faces more homelessness and hunger than any other neighborhood in Vancouver. Every day, I walk by more homeless people on the street who are hungry, cold and wet. The Olympics have only increased this, creating man-made poverty which is unfair and unjust.
The government is spending billions on a circus, while putting people aside. They say they are fixing the city but how is the city being fixed if so many people are actually worse off? Across the city we are seeing cuts to education, decreased funding to the arts, more people unemployed. Is this the kind of society we want? The cost of renting in Vancouver is now outrageous. It is hard enough to live on a fixed income—whether pension, or social assistance or disability. Just in the DTES, 1,000 to 1,200 units of low-income housing have been lost since the Olympic bid due to closures and conversions to tourist rentals. Meanwhile, over 1,500 new market homes, primarily condominiums, are being built here.
We are also witnessing a dramatic increase in police presence in this neighbourhood. There are often six to eight police officers on just the one intersection at Main and Hastings. One day a few of us were walking down the street and heard a woman yelling for help. As we ran, we saw her being dragged out of a police car, getting kicked to the ground, and being handcuffed. She had apparently been chased by a guy with a knife and she ran into the police car for help. The police had dragged her out of their car, berating her for entering a police car, and arrested her. They did not do anything to help her. With the Olympics, this is the kind of increased protection we can expect.
Street vendors are especially being harassed and are given tickets for by-law infractions. The City has banned dumpsters from the downtown core, eliminating the ability of binners [dumpster divers] to make a living. All this to “clean up” the neighbourhood for Olympic officials and tourists; but what is the cost to humanity? They might be able to temporarily sweep things under the rug, but what Olympic legacy will be left for our grandchildren? The City of Vancouver and the Vancouver 2010 Integrated Security Unit are also trying to change the planned route of our historic Feb 14, 2010 March for Murdered and Missing Women, something far more significant and sacred than their Games.
It is easy to turn a blind eye to the plight of the DTES and to stereotype us all as alcoholics and addicts, but we are all humans and we all have a story. I am living proof of the residential school era. I was separated from my parents, my family and my culture. I lost my language. I was beaten and abused severely in residential school. All across Canada, Indian Residential Schools are one of the starkest reminders of the legacy of genocide against Indigenous peoples.
Like many others, I am not satisfied with last year’s formal apology from the federal government. The apology was supposed to start a new relationship with Indigenous peoples, one based on respect. But the 2010 Olympic Games represents just one of the many examples of the continuation of the same kind of colonial relationship: we are not consulted, are forcibly displaced, and endure increasing poverty for their benefit. This is not the start of a new relationship. This is why to me the apology is like a slap in the face, the kind you experience in an abusive relationship where one day you are beaten, the next day you are sent flowers with a sorry note, and then you are beaten again.
This is why I and the DTES Power of Women group are united against the impacts of the Olympics and we have been doing a lot to make our voices heard and our opposition strong. There is a lot of power and unity among us; we may be poor but our spirit is not. All my relations.
When one hears "Olympics," one thinks of good health, strength and endurance. There seems to be few, if any, Indigenous athletes in Canada. The powers that be have been trying to break the spirits of Indigenous people with poverty so that we will sign away our lands and rights by their treaty process. Over 150 years our once abundant forestry and fishery have been taken and so we have gone from being free self-sustaining individuals living off clean, rich land to being beggars in our own country. Chemicals from monocultural farming, manufacturing, mining and the tar sands continue to pollute our once pristine air, land and water. None of the stolen lands or assets have benefited the people to whom it once belonged.
The ugliness of our lives, such as drug addiction, alcoholism, prostitution, chronic unemployment, watered down education and health problems from an inadequate diet are just some of the prices we have paid for the so-called democracy of Canada which continues to justify the thievery of our lands and resources. In spite of the apology for the residential school experience, the policy of racism and genocide continues. I saw my parents resist injustices just as they told us our ancestors resisted from first contact; so it isn't as if Indian Affairs doesn't know what is wrong with the system that they have imposed on us. We now know that the government has designed our lifestyle by micro-managing our lives the way they, as partners to other so-called democracies like the USA, did to the Iraqis and the Palestinians.
The only improvement to our lives that has been bandied about recently was to legalize prostitution. I suppose it is so our government acts as our pimps as the Australian government has done. The Australian government recently sent a leaflet to all prostitutes recommending they use numbing agents so they can service more clients! After dishonoring the contribution of Indigenous people in the First and Second World Wars, the military is promising to pay for post-secondary education for the descendants of those veterans so they can go kill other people's children. The military are particularly targeting tribal people with this program so none survive to lay claim to their lands and resources. It looks as if the only way Indigenous people in Canada will be taxpayers is through prostitution and the military. The so-called "Indian Problem" will never go away as it is a multi-billion dollar industry.
The Olympics should be terminated. Its standards have been achieved by cheating. Of what practical value is winning the gold? Look at the price the Peruvians have paid for their gold. Such frivolity is unacceptable when there is so much poverty in the world. Such high standards of physical excellence going hand-in-hand with bankrupt moral ethics—to what purpose? Why is there so much slavery when there are so many so-called democracies? Perhaps that is why they need to deliver it at the point of a gun. Sorry is not good enough for what has been done to our humanity. It is no longer about educating them. They have made their choices; let them pay through their karma.
Stella August was born in 1945 in Ahousat, BC and is a long-time resident of the Downtown Eastside.
Phillipa Ryan was born 1943 in Kitwanga, Skeena River, BC. She has been a resident of the Downtown Eastside off and on since 1980.
Priscillia May is from Wet'suwet'en Territory. She is an activist, artist, actor and volunteer in the DTES. She has been involved with organizing the February 14, 2010 memorial March for Murdered and Missing Women. A single parent, her child is her stone, who inspires and encourages her.
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.