Valentine’s Day is a special occasion down here on the mean streets of Vancouver. For the last 12 years, various women in the Downtown Eastside, Vancouver’s skid row community ravaged by drugs, violence and poverty, have organized the Womens’ Memorial March in order to remember the women who have gone missing from this neighbourhood. In all, 62 women have gone missing and unaccounted-for off these streets since 1978. Most of them are heroin users and sex workers; and most of them are Native.
On Feb. 24th, hundreds took to the streets for a procession through the worst blocks of the Downtown Eastside. They stopped at a dozen locations where some of the missing women were last seen, including the doorway of the “Funky Winker Beans” bar, a back alley, and the lobby of a womens’ shelter. At each stop, a rose was laid and the names of the missing were called out, while elders did a smudging.
After two hours occupying the streets, the crowd gathered in front of the RCMP station on Main and Hastings, where several speakers, including some family members of the missing, addressed the crowd. Fay Blaney, a womens’ and aboriginal rights activist and professor, mixed anger with her desire to memorialize the dead.
“We stand together to honour the hopes and the dreams of our sisters, and to honour the lives they have left behind,” Blaney said to cheers. “We stand together to ask blessings from their grandmothers, the grandmothers of this Coast Salish territory. But we should also memorialize our sisters who are the walking wounded in these streets. Let us me our sisters who will fall this year as result of the brutal government policies. Let us remember our sisters who will lose their children today grandmothers. Let us think about our sisters who will be end up on the streets, when they have no homes to go to tonight grandmothers, and who will be incarcerated, grandmothers. And finally, let us address the loss of the Ministry for Women’s Equality and what that means for women in this province, and let us address the loss of funding to womens’ shelters.”
She continued, “I want to speak for a moment about what this is not about for me; this is not about increased budgets for police investigation at the Pickton farm. We don’t need more funding for brown bureaucrats to do the bidding for the government and for the police, for a neocolonialist system that figures that a dead woman is ‘just another dead Indian.’ And we do not need a red light district so we can hide our sisters from the eyes of the world. And we don’t need a mainstream media to trivialize the lives of our sisters.”
The story of Vancouver’s “missing women” has become familiar to all Canadians. Last year, the police arrested Robert Pickton, a local pig and sheep farmer, who is currently in pre-trial, accused of the murder of 15 women whose DNA has been found in the soil of his farm. But it’s clear that for the women living in the DES, the story of violence doesn’t begin and end with Pickton.
Though the procession through the streets held a sombre tone, there was a sense of vindication as well, a feeling for many that their voices are no longer crying out in the dark. Many feel that it was public outcry that finally prompted the police to make inquiries at the Pickton farm.
Marlene Trick is a community organizer based in Vancouver’s Carnegie Community Centre, and an organizer at “Breaking the Silence Against Violence in the Downtown Eastside.” She hopes the Pickton case will give them a chance to keep the ravaged neighbourhood in the public eye.
“This march started up as a way for the women living in the community, who really wanted to stand up and take action against the violence that was happening against women in their community, to feel empowered,” she says. “One of the ways they were able to do that was by organizing a march; it was always a small gathering. Last year when the Pickton story broke was two weeks prior to Feb. 14th, and the march was larger than previous years. And this year, it was much larger than has ever been, really.”
While Valentines’ Day here is a chance for people to remember their sisters, lovers, friends, moms, aunties and nieces who have succumbed to the “hell on earth” of Vancouver’s low track.
“That’s where I think it’s really important to have the inquiry into why he wasn’t investigated years back; it could have saved many womens’ lives,” Trick says. “For this to never happen again the police departments [will need to] change the way they work, they won’t be able to ignore disadvantaged communities.” Down here, it is widely believed that Robert Pickton wasn’t acting alone. Beyond this, violence and abuse are facts of daily life for the women- for all the residents – of this neighbourhood, even as they live in the public eye.