Who gets to talk about the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver?


During the summer, I read an article in the Vancouver Sun entitled “260 agencies, housing sites crowd Downtown Eastside.”  The byline reads, “a new list compiled by the Sun includes 30 health care operators, services for families, and more than 100 linked to housing. Sun reporters… ask why they are all crammed into one tiny neighbourhood.” The article was published at the end of June but it’s been sitting in my desk drawer covered in highlighter and notes ever since. Despite its presence amongst the other materials I turn to when I write, I haven’t picked it up again for several reasons.

Firstly, I honestly didn’t know where to begin. Even as someone relatively new to recognizing classism, poor-phobia, and settler colonialism, reading the article was an excruciatingly frustrating endeavour. Starting just with the headline, the article is set up to frame the services available in the Downtown Eastside (DTES) as excessive and inefficient, fuelling neoliberal angst that social services are a “waste of my tax-dollars”. What the article fails to reference is the criticisms of the not-for-profit industrial complex that come from the DTES itself. These critiques ask different questions about services in areas like the DTES that centre on the lives of those who are actually receiving and in need of services.

Secondly, I didn’t want to erase the issue of voice. Here I was, reading the article, asking when the reporters might refer to the opinion of someone with actual lived knowledge of the DTES. The article does reference the Carnegie Project and quotes Scott Clark, a resident and worker within the DTES whos involved with ALIVE, the Aboriginal Live in Vancouver Enhancement Society. These are saving graces but it seems too convenient that they reside at the end of the article after the PhD bearing “experts” have weighed in. If I could feel myself so angered by the voyeuristic gaze of social scientists and the like, what right do I have, as someone who has neither lived nor worked in the DTES, to take up space with my own voice?

However, what I do have lived experience with is rich, degree holding white folks who write for an audience that looks a little too much like they do. And what I can say on that matter is that these are not universal experiences or opinions. Their “expertise” is not going to end poverty or foster robust social justice. And that’s why we need to silence our “how to fix the DTES narratives” in favour of a committed effort to standing back and letting the work being done in that community, by and for that community, really thrive.

So I’m going to take a break from the Vancouver Sun and seek out media that’s more responsible, honest, and representative of the incredible things being done in the DTES everyday. For a few examples check out “Megaphone Magazine” or the “DTES Power of Women” page at Vancouver Media Co-op. And, for more on the non-profit industrial complex, hit up the library and check out The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex by INCITE! Women Of Color Against Violence.


Image sources: evonniastarr.blogspot.ca and wrongkindofgreen.org

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Representations of Chief Theresa Spence in News Media

by Caity Goerke 

Since Chief Theresa Spence of Attawapiskat began hunger striking on December 11th, Canadian journalists have shared their many opinions on Chief Spence, her actions, and Indigenous activism in Canada. Well insightful and empowering accounts of Chief Spence’s activism certainly exist, dominant Canadian news media has discovered a plethora of ways to discredit, trivialize, and silence her. Taking note of the general way that media has failed to adequately represent Chief Spence and her actions (or the ways that Canadians have failed to demand fairer media), I began to recognize that the representations of Chief Spence reflects a larger picture of inadequate and harmful representations of Indigenous people.

In her essay, “Sacajawea and Her Sisters: Images and Native Women,” Gail Guthrie Valaskakis* discusses contradictory constructions used to represent Indigenous women and explains that

these contradictory images of Indian women continue to objectify and degrade… and neither the romanticized Indian princess nor the primitive squaw allows newcomers to identify Indians as equals, as owners of this land, as Native North Americans with homes, families, jobs, and indigenous governments.” (pg. 149)

While arguments could certainly be made to show how representations of Chief Spence oscillate between “princess” and “squaw” constructions (such as the ways in which she’s represented as a revolutionary leader in contrast with suggestions that she’s selfish, unreasonable, and badly behaved), what stood out in my investigation of news coverage about her strike was the ways in which she has become a part of a larger narrative that refuses to “identify Indians as equals, as owners of this land, as Native North Americans with homes, families, jobs, and indigenous governments.” Instead of recognizing these things, mainstream news coverage regarding Chief Spence ignores her cultural context and the deep history of colonial oppression that informs her actions, it silences her voice, and it makes use of racist, sexist and classist stereotypes.

Before I jump into my analysis, it’s worth while to make two important disclaimers:

1)   Transparency regarding parameters is always helpful: All articles used for this blog were discovered through Google searching and consultations with Canadian Newsstand. As there actually happens to be a fair amount of stuff out there, I went for common themes that seemed to pop up over several articles as opposed to more specific details. Also, for the sake of a manageable scope, I generally focussed on “mainstream” web-based print media.

2)   More importantly, I’m a settler Canadian and I am aware that my presence on this land plays a role in the very systems that Chief Spence is taking a stand against. However, thanks to Canada’s long standing colonial occupation of this land, I nonetheless find myself here. For what it’s worth, writing this is an act of solidarity with Chief Spence and comes from my own acknowledgment of the continued legacy of colonization that threatens Indigenous rights to land, water, and sovereignty. In addition, as I’m not an Indigenous woman, I sincerely hope that my analysis doesn’t contribute to the extensive body of harmful representations of Indigenous women and am open to feedback if it does.

What stood out perhaps most problematically in my investigation of news coverage regarding Chief Spence was the complete lack of acknowledgment for the cultural context in which her actions are located. (And, no, references to her “teepee,” to drum circles and to smudge ceremonies don’t count as cultural context … that’s just lazy journalism’s reliance on stereotyping.) In addition, the ability of journalists to gloss over colonialism never ceases to amaze me and the bull-headed insistence on ignoring the role that settler-Canadians play in the colonial process is, as always, outstanding. What we need more of is analyses like the one given by Devon Meekis in their article “Idle No More: On the meaning of Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike.” Meekis explains the importance of acknowledging that Spence’s hunger strike has to be considered different from those that have occurred in other contexts because, without this understanding, there is a failure to recognize the “cultural importance and philosophy behind such practice” in a specifically Indigenous sense. As a result, her actions will be forever lost amongst imposed interpretations of what does and doesn’t constitute “proper” activism.

In addition to the absence of cultural context, there is also, by and large, an absence of Chief Spence’s voice. Where many articles are void of any statements made by her or her support team all together, those that do directly quote Chief Spence often push her statements to the end of the article or fail to use them as a focal points. I hesitate to impose too many of my own conclusions on this matter because I recognize that it actually could be Chief Spence’s intention to reduce the amount her voice is heard in order to emphasize the collectivity of her struggle and avoid the hyper-individualization that mainstream North American celebrity culture is so apt to perpetrate. However, that doesn’t excuse anyone from ignoring her voice entirely – if Chief Spence has refused to comment this refusal could certainly be thoughtfully acknowledged and engaged with. In addition, I felt that this point had to be mentioned because it’s hard to imagine that Canadian media’s tendency to silence Indigenous women isn’t at least partly to blame. With the help of Valaskakis, we can locate the lack of Chief Spence’s voice within a continuum of Indigenous people being silenced. Valaskakis explains that the “construction and appropriation of images of Indians” helps to construct histories of the “ageless Western frontier.” (pg. 150) What is key in Valaskakis’ statement is that it is images, not stories, of Indigenous people that play a role in Canadian and American “history” and what’s particularly troubling about images is that they tend to be seen without being heard.

The last point I want to make about the news coverage regarding Chief Spence is the (unfortunately unsurprising) amount of racism, classism and sexism being used to represent her and her actions. The preoccupation with how much she gets paid along with discussions regarding the supposed “mismanagement” of funds on Attiwapiskat is no doubt connected to deeply entrenched ideas of Indigenous people as “free-riders” and “well-fare cheats” that the rest of Canadians “have to pay for.” In considering how this stereotype informs representations of Chief Spence, the reality of her (and Atawapiskat’s) finances don’t actually matter. What matters is that her finances are a constant point of media fixation and that this preoccupation is, of course, part of a larger racist narrative. (For more on this and other negative stereotypes used to represent Indigenous folks, check out what Wab Kinew has to say.) In addition, journalists like Barbara Kay apparently couldn’t help but subject Chief Spence to the kinds of scrutiny so often projected on women in the spot light – specifically those pertaining to appearance and body size. To spare you to experience of actually having to read Kay’s article, I’ll sum it up for you. Essentially, Kay notes that the silver-lining to Chief Spence’s hunger strike is that she’ll lose weight. Now… at this point I could subject you to paragraphs upon paragraphs about why this makes me want to throw my computer at the wall, but as you’re all smart people I’ll assume you’ll manage to be horrified enough without my assistance.

With any luck, I’ve managed to shed a little light on the ways that mainstream Canadian news media manages to represent Indigenous activism in problematic, offensive and entirely inadequate ways. Critical engagement with news media is imperative. Without critical engagement, it’s too easy to lose sight of the ways that Canadian media is steeped in colonial, white-supremacist, patriarchal and classist assumptions that provide Canadians with a distorted perception of Canadian-Indigenous relations. So the next time you read about Chief Spence in the news, consider what’s going on behind the scenes. And, whatever you do, avoid the Sun News Network…  (that is, unless you enjoy flagrant displays of unapologetically obtuse racism).


*Valaskakis, Gail Guthrie. “Sacajawea and Her Sisters: Images and Native Women.” Indian Country: Essays on Contemporary Native Culture. pg 125-150. 2005

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Global Campaign for the Decriminalization of Abortion Couldn’t Come at Better Time

Guest post by Jill Cambidge

Today, September 28, marks the International Day of Action for the Global Campaign for the Decriminalization of Abortion, an effort for organizations to campaign for women’s reproductive rights worldwide. The movement began with the struggle to address the public health crisis of unsafe abortions in Latin America before spreading to include countries and organizations across the globe. This year’s action holds even greater meaning for Canada since it falls on the very same week that Motion 312, which sought to re-open the abortion debate in Canada, was struck down in Ottawa.

Now, since some of you reading this probably think you are experiencing a horrifying case of déjà vu, allow me to clarify exactly what that last sentence means.  On April 26, 2012, parliament debated a motion introduced by Conservative MP, Stephen Woodworth. Motion 312 sought to appoint a special committee to review the section of the Criminal Code that states that a fetus becomes a child only after complete birth. While the rhetoric of Woodworth’s motion may try to frame the issue as a “medical evidence” seeking mission focusing on the definition of what constitutes a human being, many Canadians were not fooled by the thinly-veiled attempt to re-open the debate on women’s right to abortion.

According to Woodworth, “the current law dehumanizes and excludes an entire class of people”. That’s interesting. I would think that taking away a woman’s basic right to choose what to do with her own body would dehumanize and exclude about half the population in Canada. You know, that half that can ACTUALLY GET PREGNANT.

Immigration Minister and prominent Conservative MP, Jason Kenney, also voted for the motion stating before the vote took place that he believes, “we can have a respectful debate” on the issue. Prime Minister Stephen Harper voted against the motion although it has already been pointed out that allowing M-312 to be tabled at all goes against his promise that he would open the abortion debate. Essentially, all it does is shift the blame from himself while giving his Conservative MP’s the chance to vote the motion in.

So, it appears these privileged white men really believe they know what’s best for women’s bodies. Cue the collective groan of feminists everywhere.

For many, this back-door attempt to re-open the abortion debate stirs up memories of the hard-fought battle it took to legalize abortion in Canada in the first place. Let’s recap. In 1969 Pierre Trudeau’s government became the first one in Canada to legalize abortion for some women, under certain circumstances. Women had to present their case before a panel of mostly male doctors who would determine whether or not her request for abortion was “medically necessary”. This ruling presented obvious flaws since it defined the terms of what constitutes a “legitimate reason” for wanting an abortion in medical terms and failed to address the reality that many women choose to abort an unwanted pregnancy for a myriad of reasons. Reasons such as, inadequate finances, not being ready for the responsibility, having a problematic or abusive relationship with the father, feeling too young, health problems, or maybe just plain not wanting to be pregnant.

Women were granted full legal access to abortion by the Supreme Court of Canada in the landmark ruling of Roe vs. Morgentaler in 1988 which states that, “the decision whether or not to terminate a pregnancy is essentially a moral decision and in a free and democratic society, the conscience of the individual must be paramount to that of the state.” In other words, the government has absolutely no say on what women decide to do regarding their bodies. According to Statistics Canada, over 3 million abortions have been performed since the act was first decriminalized in 1969.

M-312 was debated for one hour in parliament last Friday and MP’s voted on the motion on Wednesday, September 26, 2012. The motion was denied with a vote of 203-91, meaning that Canada’s Criminal Code, which currently states that life begins at the moment of complete birth, will stand as it should; unchanged.

This victory can be attributed to a number of women’s groups and human rights activists who rallied against M-312 to safeguard women’s right to choose. The Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada released this statement condemning the motion and have since called for the resignation of Conservative MP, Rona Ambrose, as Minister for the Status of Women after she voted in favour of the motion on Wednesday.

Radical Handmaids, so named after Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, have been petitioning and protesting the motion since its introduction in April. On Wednesday, the group took to Parliament Hill adorned in red capes and white hats while MP’s voted in the House of Commons. Leadnow, a democracy-seeking public advocacy group, raised money to place this ad for MP’s to see in the pages of the Ottawa Citizen on the morning of the vote.

Despite the victory for women’s reproductive rights in Canada this week, the fact that Motion 312 was even introduced proves that this fight is not over. While abortions are covered by healthcare in most provinces, many women living in rural areas of the country struggle to safely access abortion. In Yukon, Nunavut, Nova Scotia, and the Northwest Territories abortion clinics are not among the services offered. Not to mention the women living in Prince Edward Island do not have any access to safe abortions. Furthermore, as the Global Campaign for the Decriminalization of Abortion highlights, our sisters’ across the world still face tremendous obstacles for autonomy over their bodies and their right to choose abortion. For countless women the battle for fair reproductive rights is not over. In fact, for many it is just beginning.

The state of abortion rights in countries outside of Canada can be summarized in this brief statement from the GCDA’s website:

Chile, Nicaragua, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic continue to uphold the complete ban on abortion in any circumstances, even if it is necessary to save the life of the woman. Currently in Colombia 99% of abortions performed in the country remain illegal and occur in unsafe conditions despite Colombia’s 2006 Constitutional Court ruling that legalised abortion in certain circumstances. Poland already has some of the strictest abortion restrictions in Europe and continues to run the risk of instigating a complete ban on abortion in all circumstances due to increasing conservative pressure. 

According to an article written for the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada, the estimated number of women worldwide who die from unsafe or so-called back-alley abortions is 68,000, while related injuries are around 8 million. It is no surprise that most of these numbers come from the more poverty-stricken areas of the world in Africa, Latin America, and parts of Asia. In Canada, before the legalization of abortion, it is estimated that around 4,000-6,000 women died between 1926 and 1947.

So the basic facts stand as follows; even if women do not have access to legal and safe abortions, guess what, THEY ARE STILL GOING TO DO IT. Women are willing to risk their own lives in unsafe conditions to rid themselves of an unwanted pregnancy. We know this has happened here and is happening in other areas of the world. It is now more important than ever to recognize the struggles of women everywhere as we continue fighting for our right to abortion. The lives of women depend on it.

For more information and to take action with the Global Campaign for the Decriminalization of Abortion visit http://www.september28.org/.

Jill Cambidge is a recent graduate from Simon Fraser University’s School of Communication.

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The Misrepresentative Results of the Federal Election

With our current system, first-past the post, or single-member plurality, the Conservative government secured a majority without the majority of the popular vote.  This is a systemic problem within our system that negates the views and opinions of millions of Canadians whose votes are essentially disregarded.

Consider what Canada’s federal government would look like with a system of proportional representation, a system where each vote cast is counted and represented in government.

A different Canada emerges, one where everyone’s voice is included.  Let’s talk about this!

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Abolition of the New Brunswick Advisory Council on the Status of Women: On the Council and its Closure

This is a guest blog post by Beth Lyons, a now former part-time contract employee of the NB ACSW. To read more of Beth’s writing visit her blog: A Boston Marriage

Last Tuesday, the Government of New Brunswick slated the New Brunswick Advisory Council on the Status of Women for abolition by eliminating 100% of its funding from the provincial budget. If this defunding is carried out, the effects will be devastating not only for the women of New Brunswick, but for all Canadian women. This Council is an arms-length government agency that has been advocating for women since 1977 and is, frankly, irreplaceable.

Historically, the N.B. ACSW has been the gold standard in provincial/territorial Advisory Councils (there are 8 of these agencies in total). The Council published the country’s first brochure on battered women in 1979 and led the way in developing a system for gender-based analysis in Canada. As Dr. Wendy Robbins (Professor at UNB and co-founder of the institution’s Women’s Studies Program) explained to CBC, “They’ve done a phenomenal job, they’ve put issues on the agenda nationally, and they’re just a treasure trove of research, of outreach, of consultation; of everything that an agency does well, they’re a model of it. I’ve often suggested to other people that they look at this little gem we have in New Brunswick.”

History and praise aside, here are some other things that the Council does:

  • Publishes a biennial statistical report on the status of women in New Brunswick, a document that brings together information that, in some cases, would be otherwise inaccessible and presents it in a way that is understandable to those who aren’t numbers-experts. The Council also pull smaller, more concise fact-sheets out of that report and updates them regularly to ensure that current numbers are available between publications of full reports;
  • Hosts lunch and learn events around all regions of the province, often partnering with grassroots organizations that otherwise would not have the funding to present their work publicly;
  • The Council’s chairperson has a weekly column dedicated to commenting on women’s issues in the Times & Transcript newspaper. In the past year, the column has discussed trans issues, abortion rights, pay equity, media coverage of women in politics, white privilege, pay equity, gender-based analysis, and dozens of other topics. A 2010 column, explaining Canada’s prostitution laws and examining the approach other countries take, gained international notice and earned the Council’s Executive Director an invitation to Sweden for a journalists’ tour. The Executive director the people responsible for the Sweden’s progressive legislation on prostitution and was able to talk to many front line workers about the law;
  • Produces a weekly email newsletter that goes out to over 4 000 subscribers. This newsletter is a dense piece of work packed with information on events, amusing anecdotes, facts from reports, and excerpts from studies;
  • Operates a toll free line that women can call to ask about services, bring issues to attention, suggest ideas, make complaints, and inquire about the status of issues;
  • Offers advice to the government, consulting with them on decisions, policies and programs. Because the Council is arms-length, they can call bullshit when they needed to; their independent status gives them the ability to speak truth to power;

The Council did all this work with a whopping few hundred thousand dollars a year. Before the budget was announced, the Council operated on $418 000 a year. The Government of New Brunswick is stating that funding for the Council is being cut because the province is in dire financial straits, not as an attempt to “water down” the voice of women’s advocates. The Government is insistent that the Council overlaps with the Women’s Issues Branch in Executive Council, that there is duplication in services that must be eliminated.

It’s true that there is a Women’s Issues Branch within the New Brunswick government that works with the Minister responsible for the Status of Women. They do good work, though it tends to be on non-controversial issues that most everyone supports, such as providing services to victims of violence. In fact, the Minister responsible for the Status of Women has said that at the end of the day, the Government had to make a decision between cutting 14 front-line workers or cutting the Council, and that the Government chose services over than advocacy. The Government assures us that the functions of the NB ACSW will be absorbed into the Women’s Issues Branch and that no services will be sacrificed as a result. The Government tells us that two new positions are even being created in the Women’s Issues Branch and have been offered to ACSW employees (which also means that the savings from the elimination of the Council are not the full $418 000), while pledging that the Minister responsible for the Status of Women will act as a strong advocate for the women of the province.

It is, of course, patently ridiculous for the Government to suggest that these two bodies overlap simply because they are both focused on women. Though they are dedicated to the same group (that happens to comprise half of the population), these departments have very different mandates and focuses. In some ways, they are antithetical to one another: one exists to nip at the heels of government and one exists to do the express bidding of government. To expect a Minister and a branch of civil servants to be able to speak up and advocate for women in the same way that an independent agency does is ludicrous. For example, will the Minister and the Women’s Issues Branch be adopting a pro-choice stance and begin advocating for improved abortion access in New Brunswick? The Council holds a pro-choice stance and deplored New Brunswick’s reprehensible regulation that forces women seeking publicly-funded abortions to not only find two doctors to deem their abortion “medically necessary” but to then have the procedure performed in one of the two hospitals in the province that provide abortions, rather than a clinic. Will the Minister responsible for the Status of Women and the Women’s Issues Branch take on their anti-choice higher-ups? If they’re advocates, they should; after all, the Supreme Court of Canada guarantees a woman’s right to choose and the Canada Health Act states that abortions are to be publicly funded.

I think we all know that this cut is not about eliminating overlap in services; it is about silencing an agency that has been tremendously effective in advocating for women. As the blog Save Our Advisor Council says, “$418 000 isn’t enough money to make a difference in our provincial budget; it is enough to muzzle the pesky voices of New Brunswick women!” At the heart of things is the fact that the Council did its job all too well, so it had to be shut down. We will not see the Minister responsible for the Status of Women or the Women’s Issues Branch suddenly speak out on issues that are deemed to controversial or may cast the Government in a negative light, nor will we see them as involved as the Council is at community and grassroots levels. We will see them continue to tell women that they have to chose between services and advocacy and that the fight for equality is not the concern of government.

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