On the dangerous streets of Vancouver’s downtown east side, the female inhabitants are representative of every national origin, race, age, status and faith. Those streets are likely home to a woman who grew up in your neighborhood, who attended your local schools, who laughed and cried with and loved at least one other member of your community. One day she disappeared for one or more of a hundred different reasons only to resurface into the poverty, addiction, disease and predation of Vancouver’s ‘four blocks of hell’.
However much addiction, mental health, poverty and racism complicate their everyday lives, these intersecting issues blur the overarching problem that this neighborhood is famous for. The biggest and most persistent threat to female residents of the downtown east side is male perpetrated violence – rape, molestation, beatings, abduction, kidnapping, torture, murder.
Provision of physical, mental and cultural safety for marginalized women is therefore the primary objective of the Downtown East Side Women’s Center (DEWC)
that provides safe haven, basic needs and support services to 500 women and children every day.
On November 2nd I attended a fund raising event for the DEWC that moved me beyond words. At “Herstory in Focus” I was introduced to women like Teresa, a native of Hong Kong who came to Canada in 1976; the artist Patricia whose paintings have been displayed in Gallery Cachet, Francis who is Métis and loves walking in the park; Rosy who is Chinese and enjoys practicing English; Bernice who loves Elvis movies, dogs and cats; Wendy who is Thai and enjoys ice skating; Irene who is a member of the Cree Nation in Alberta and enjoys teaching the Cree language; and to Colleen, a southern Kashoni Crow from the Yukon who enjoys hiking.
Larissa (Little Dancing Bear) is Anishnawbe from Winnipeg’s Peguis First Nation. You can see two of her beautiful regalia designs and her dancing prowess in the attached video of the DEWC fund raiser’s fashion show. When she spoke to the crowd, she included a few phrases of her native language. She stated that she had learned what she knows of her language from an app ‘so please excuse mispronunciations’ and made us smile when she went on to muse that her use of a mobile device probably, “makes me an urban Indian.”
Following the reception and territorial welcome, live and silent auctions, the grand finale of the evening was the fashion show. The moderator introduced each model by their first name and collectively as “warrior, mother, sacred giver of life.”
All of the women were incredibly beautiful as they made their way down the runway modelling outfits they had put together from cast off clothing donated to the center. Models of all ages danced rhythmically, proud marched or shy walked their way between the rows of admirers to the beat of their chosen music.
They sparkled, they glowed with happiness. Their hair was carefully coiffed or worn loose about their shoulders. Makeup sometimes hid scars that attested to their hard lives on the street, scars that were visible nonetheless when they walked over to greet their audience in person.
Some drifted down the runway like Versace models while others stepped along little girl awkward in shoes that did not fit or that were on feet that had not worn high heels in a very long time.
The audience roared approval. We clapped, we sang along, we grinned from ear to ear while tears gathered in glittering eyes and sometimes escaped to roll down cheeks. Photographers scurried about doing what photographers do. This was a big deal, a life changing moment, a massive paradigm shift for everyone who came to witness and pay tribute to the strength, the courage, resilience, generosity and vulnerability of the women who access the services and programs of the DEWC.
The event was held in Vancouver’s beautiful art gallery fittingly overlooked by the compelling work of Vancouver artist Carol Sawyer. Her current show entitled The Natalie Brettschneider Archive is dedicated to all the female artists – the painters, the photographers, the musicians, singers, dancers, actors, puppeteers and poets that history persistently ignores…a collection of ‘herstories’ unrecorded by male historians.
An astounding $50,000 was raised that night. I watched in wonder as women and men unhesitatingly spent thousands of dollars with the wave of a hand and every person in the room held up their $20 bill for collection. Many of them I’m sure, were thinking about the girl who had disappeared from their lives into Vancouver’s downtown east side and broke their hearts.