A Right to Community

On Saturday, I attended the 18th Annual Missing Women’s Memorial March in the Downtown Eastside. Eagles circled high above us at Main and Hastings, maybe as a sign that their spirits were close by as we looked up.

I have been to many of the marches as they wind their way through the allys and streets that hold the memories and stories of the tragedy of the missing, but not to be forgotten women.

The Pickton trial is over, and there are still disappearances and still enormous risks faced by women, especially for those involved in the sex trade.

At the very beginning I called for a public inquiry into the whole tragedy – it has not happened – but it must. No other group in our society would remain so invisible to the legal, judicial, and political authorities.

The Conservative government in Ottawa has washed its hands of any action for law reform to allow sex workers to assert their rights for safety, dignity and control of their lives.

The annual marches are important as a gathering of memory, strength, and will, to make sure the missing women are not forgotten, nor those still alive and at risk.

It was ironic that on the same day as the march, the Globe and Mail began its series on the Downtown Eastside “Our Nation’s Slum, Time To Fix It”. People I talked to on the march, loathed the headline – yet another inaccurate, sensational, one liner, to describe a rich, complex community.

These stories can be frustrating – they are so predictable. This one (at least on its opening day), zeroes in on the $1.4 Billion – estimated by the paper – spent on the neighbourhood since 2000. The story begins with….”it remains riddled with drugs, disease and despair…..”

The story did not address the impact of failed public policies that have forced people into poverty and homelessness over two decades. It focuses on the concentration of poverty and the premise that opening up the neighbourhood to the middle class, businesses, and some good old development, is what will do the trick. I have heard this many times. Indeed developers can’t stand the fact that these properties, home to thousands of low income people, and so close to the Downtown core, are “unrealized” to their full development potential (more condos…).

To me the underlying argument being raised is: low-income people have no right to exist in dignity in their own community, one that has a rich history, social connection and deep sense of community. I wonder what other neighbourhood would voluntarily allow itself to be uprooted and dismantled – because it was deemed unacceptable by others.

Residents of the Downtown Eastside, have as much right as any other community to live, thrive, grow, have decent housing, and earn decent incomes.

I tried to describe this perspective, in a forward to “Hope in the Shadows” a book about the people in the Hope in Shadows Calendar.

I won’t repeat what I said in that foreword, except to say, I know people in the community feel ongoing anxiety about the media view of the neighbourhood.

The media have always been an integral, and important part of the unfolding story of the Downtown Eastside – but not always right.