In February 2016 I visited Vancouver to walk with Kerry Porth at the 26th annual Missing Women’s Memorial March.
“In Vancouver, friends and family members led by Indigenous women move through the DTES and stop at sites where women died or were last seen to offer prayers, medicines, and roses in remembrance”. https://womensmemorialmarch.wordpress.com/
I walked with Kerry, Jessica Numminen and Jan Haaken, three amazing women working for women’s rights, social justice and a just society and an incredible event in its 26th year. In solidarity!
During the trip, I also met up with two women artists, Karenza and Louise, that I worked with in 2010 on a British Academy funded Project ‘Community Politics and Resistance in Downtown Eastside Vancouver’ a participatory action research project using walking and visual methods. We ended the research with an exhibition of local residents/community researchers work. A co-authored report was published in ‘The Megaphone’ Street newspaper.
Karenza and Louise were members of ATIRA’s Enterprising Women Making Art (EWMA) programme. We were joined by Jessica who managed the (EWMA) programme, before embarking on her MA in Winnipeg.
In 2010 Kerry was the CEO of PACE Society a Sex Worker-led and driven project offering services to Sex Workers in the Downtown Eastside. Kerry is now the Chair of Pivot Legal Society. Pivot Legal Society is “a legal advocacy group that fight legislation, policies, and practices that undermine human rights, intensify poverty, and deprive people of the opportunity to become full and equal participants in their communities”. Pivot is committed to the de-criminalisation of sex work, supported the constitutional challenge by BC sex workers and say that
when adult sex work is criminalised, sex workers experience decreased control over the conditions of their work and they are subject to increased violence and discrimination. Pivot’s commitment to the decriminalisation of adult sex work is informed by our work with sex workers across Canada.
It was great to catch up with everyone and brilliant to walk with Kerry on the march.
At the very same time my friend and collaborator, filmmaker Jan Haaken, was in Vancouver launching her latest film Milk Men at the Just film festival in Vancouver on 13 February. I met Jan when we were both keynotes at a conference on Visual Methods and our work resonated with each other-both using ethnography, participatory and visual methods and in Jan’s case filmic methods. A psychologist and clinician, Jan’s psychoanalytically informed methods also resonated with me and both of us are working in border spaces, or as Jan describes, “zones of trouble and transition”.
Jan joined us on the walk, she was interested to see the walking method in practice and to meet Kerry. Jessica was also taking part in the walk, carrying a banner in honour of the missing and dead women. We all gathered in the cold and pouring rain on the corner of Main Street and Hastings Street, across the road from the Carnegie Centre – the official start of the walk.
Fig.1. Kerry’s Map
Jan and I met Kerry in Waves coffee shop to discuss the walk and the map Kerry had drawn. It was busy with walkers and Saturday morning trade. The owner led us into a quiet cordoned off section to talk and sound record our conversation before we joined the other walkers.
Fig.3. Kerry explaining the route
Kerry had drawn her two favourite places on the march,
They’re quite close to the beginning. First, that’s Main and Hastings and that’s the Carnegie Centre. One of the lovely things about the march is often because what’ll happen is everybody will come pouring out this door and we circle the intersection at Main and Hastings and our friends the bald eagles will be soaring overhead.
I don’t think there’s been a year where I haven’t seen them and the Indigenous people believe that that’s the spirits of their lost ones looking down and I just love bald eagles and I always find it quite moving. Years ago we had a student from Saskatchewan and so we are all over at PACE getting ready to come down and I said to her “look up when we’re at Main and Hastings there’ll be eagles there” and so she told us later that she thought Sheri and I were just being the way older women are and just putting her up, right, as a joke. So, we’re standing there at Main and Hastings and I point up and she looks up and I’m watching what’s going on and then I look at her because she’s moving and she’s just sobbing.
She was so moved by it and of course, that made us all cry. It’s quite a solemn thing you know, the elders will come out and there are people drumming and we’ll sing the Women’s Warrior song, there are Indigenous women in their regalia and I don’t know, it just feels very powerful for everybody to stand together and even though there are hundreds of people like, you can look across the circle and see so many people that you know. And of course this morning I’ve had a flood of ‘are you going to the march, are you going to the march’ [laughs] it’s like that’s typical.
So that’s one of my favourite spots and then as we go down Main Street we end up coming down to the bottom of Main Street which is here and so there’s a very bad drawing of an overpass but the mountains are in the background and there’s an overpass and then over here is CRAB Park and this is where the Memorial Stone is. So the inscription says ‘The Heart Has Its Own Memory’ and this is where people go to have memorials for the murdered women, it’s a large rock with an inscription in it.
People leave tobacco and flowers and they light candles and I’ve attended a number of memorials there. At the close of the walk, there is a candle ceremony there and they light candles and then they move on to the Japanese Language Hall and they have a feast there, I’ve never been to that part of it.
Fig.4. The memorial stone in CRAB Park
Kerry tells me that the memorial stone is in honour of all people who have died, been murdered or have gone missing in/from the DTES but has come to be associated with the Pickton case over time.
I had two friends die in 2014 pretty much from the long-term consequences of addiction and alcoholism and both women, one worked for us at PACE as an outreach worker, both really amazing women. CRAB Park is kind of a cool thing. CRAB stands for Create a Real Accessible Beach because there was no place for people to get to the beach down here and so it was a social justice thing and so it’s just weird because you have the craziness of the Downtown Eastside and you just go over this little bridge and there’s this big, peaceful park with a beach and yeah. So I’ve gone there you know on my own when you need to think and it’s a nice place to go. So yeah those are my two favourite places
Kerry points to the route on her map.
Yes, so we’re just going to be a block up that way and that’s Main and Hastings our most famous intersection and then we walk down Main Street to Alexander. This takes us through Gastown and that’s always kind of an interesting part of the march because you’ve got very wealthy tourists there.
We stop at various places along the way where women were last seen and they’ll lay a rose for them. I’ve never been close to the front of the crowd because I have PTSD and crowds are a bit too much so I tend to sort of find a space apart and I mean the march sometimes spreads out over a couple of blocks but they always have the elders at the front so at least people don’t get left behind that way because you walk at their pace.
The history and evolution of the walk: Pickton, sex work and community
I tell Kerry that I associate the Missing Women’s Memorial March with the history of the Downtown Eastside victims of Pickton as well as the politics of, and resistance by women in DTES to violence; and also more recently the constitutional challenges and sex worker rights activism, especially the resistance to Bill C 36. This Bill sadly became law in November 2014 as C-36. Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act, reducing the safety of women by increasing the risk of criminalisation for their clients.
In 2010, five community co-researchers from PACE took part in the participatory research with Kerry and me by first of all drawing a map from a place they call home to a special place, putting landmarks along the way that are important and familiar to them. They then walked their map with myself or Alka, a project worker at PACE and took photographs of the landmarks along the way. Our conversations were captured on a flip video or a sound recorder. The key places and spaces of community that the sex workers had on their maps included: CRAB park; Oppenheimer park; the Woodwards building; Pigeon park; Aboriginal Front Door; the women’s march; Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (Vandu); the organisations and places to get food and clothing; the alleyways and street corners; and the organisations offering support, the sex work support projects and the DTES Women’s Centre.
The key themes emerging from our conversations in 2010 were: violence and safety, the Charter Challenge, their material and embodied lives in the DTES, being poor and othered and stigmatised as well as the sense of community and support from PACE. These themes are all still high on the agendas of Kerry and Jessica. In 2010-2011, one PACE community researcher and wheelchair user said:
Main and Hastings Street is where a lot of homeless people hang out to try to make their money so that they can survive from day to day, which is very difficult. But it works, they make it. I see them every day, and whenever I need a helping hand to get pushed up the street in my wheelchair they help me.
Another woman, on the board of VANDU, said:
We fight to improve the lives of people who use drugs, you are really labelled down here right. My first daughter passed away in 1994 and I believe if this place had been opened then we would not have lost her.
These themes are reflected in a research report by Pivot Legal called Voices for Dignity, as well as a long career of research by John Lowman of Simon Fraser University on sex work alongside Raven Bowen, Chris Aitchison, Mary Laing, as well as literature such as Maggie de Vries book ‘Missing Sarah’ in memory of her sister Sarah.
Sarah’s website states that 69 women are missing: “A man named Robert Pickton has been charged with the murders… My sister, Sarah’s DNA was found on his property in August 2002 and in the spring of 2005, he was charged with her murder.”
Kerry tells us that Pickton was charged with twenty-six murders and convicted of six and that the women’s memorial march used to be
about, the targeting of sex workers by all kinds of people but predominately serial killers and you know lots of serial killers have said “I chose sex workers because no one gives a damn about them, no one’s going to investigate when they go missing and no one’s going to take crimes against them seriously.”
in Vancouver, in particular, we have the second highest urban Aboriginal population in Canada, the highest is in Winnipeg.
The press release for the 2016 March states:
The first women’s memorial march was held in 1991 in response to the murder of a Coast Salish woman on Powell Street in Vancouver. Her name is not spoken today out of respect for the wishes of her family. Out of this sense of hopelessness and anger came an annual march on Valentine’s Day to express compassion, community, and caring for all women in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, Unceded Coast Salish Territories.
Twenty-six years later, the women’s memorial march continues to honour the lives of missing and murdered women and all women’s lives lost in the Downtown Eastside. Increasing deaths of many vulnerable women from the DTES still leaves family, friends, loved ones, and community members with an overwhelming sense of grief and loss. Indigenous women disproportionately continue to go missing or be murdered with minimal to no action to address these tragedies or the systemic nature of gendered violence, poverty, racism, or colonialism
Kerry explained the differences in responses to C-36. Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act, by sex workers in Vancouver. She had been talking recently to women based at Sex Workers United Against Violence (SWUAV), who are Indigenous sex workers and a woman said:
we didn’t necessarily choose to be doing sex work and we don’t necessarily like doing sex work but it’s what we’re doing and we just want to be respected and we want the police to leave us alone unless we need them, right.
Kerry goes on to tell us that this was a good reminder for her to understand the different reasons for wanting decriminalization. Another woman said
yes we want it decriminalised so that the women will be safer but we would stop any woman from getting involved in sex work and then they talked about feeling ashamed because they were criminals because they’d never had a straight job and they weren’t contributing members of society; and I never felt shame about that, right so it’s really interesting and yes it really hurt me to hear them saying that about themselves.
Jan suggested that this highlighted the complexities of women’s lives and the “inadequacies in counterposing an empowerment model of sex work, a kind of volunteeristic, individualistic I ‘choose this’, versus you were trafficked and drugged and pimped into it” neither one of them capturing the complexity.
For Kerry it was really clear, the discourse around choice and empowerment is just not adequate
I never talk about people being empowered by their work any more than anybody is empowered by their work. I mean I’m sure the barista isn’t empowered by his work… it’s stupid but in order to be listened to and respected why do I have to say that sex work wasn’t that bad? So I made a conscious decision early on I’m going, to tell the truth about it. I didn’t like doing sex work, not for the reasons people think, it’s because I didn’t like playing dumb and I just I found it really irritating to have to do the kind of talking with clients, because I did girlfriend experience, and it was like I’d get these racist, homophobic, sexist assholes and you know you have to keep a smile on your face and that’s what I hated the most, that’s what I found demeaning.
We talked for a while about the performative aspect of doing sex work and indeed any job, the demands of a particular performance or service and for Jan “how much that intrudes or how much it demands of you”. For Kerry, the worst job she ever had was “an internship cataloguing stuff at the SFU archives and I used to cry every morning because it was so mind-numbingly boring you know, so yes that was the most undignified job I ever did I think”. Mine was being on a Fordist production line filling bags of bicarbonate of soda from a nozzle that deposited the bicarbonate of soda really fast!
Yet, the reality, for sex workers in Canada after Pickton, after the constitutional challenges, after Judge Himel had struck down the soliciting, living off and controlling laws, and after the instantiation in Law of C36: the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act, is that sex workers are still struggling for rights, dignity and recognition and as Kerry says
sex workers are a tiny, marginalised population like it’s taken like many, many years to even raise the issues in the way that they’ve been raised now and I imagine it’s going to take a few more years…
We walked up to the start of the march and it is raining hard. Umbrella’s up we look around and admire the gathering crowd, banners and are joined by Jessica.
Fig.5. Kerry and Jessica
Kerry tells us that
Main and Hastings it’s kind of ground zero in the Downtown Eastside and sometimes people call it Wastings and Pain because of the drug use down here and the violence and all that kind of stuff and people have such a terrible impression of this neighbourhood. I remember having a volunteer bookkeeper from England working with me and I wanted her to be able to make bank deposits which were a few blocks away and so I said “well I’ll walk you there and back so you know how to get there” and we were halfway back and she pulled me into the side and she was crying and she’s like “I don’t think I can do this by myself”. She was from London and she’s like “I’ve seen drug use before but nothing like this”, right, you know? She was just really shocked at how much very visible mental illness she saw and people suffering. People who work down here are familiar with the neighbourhood so what we see is the community, you know, we see community, we see people, relationships and people supporting each other.
You work down here for a while and people get to know who you are and I remember being harassed by some man at a bus stop and a man I didn’t even know came running across the street and said ‘leave her alone she works with the women down here’ and the other man who was harassing me he was like ‘oh I’m so sorry’; it’s a close community.
We hear loud cheering and the starting ceremony begins. The crowd is cajoled into a big circle. Kerry notices the new Justice Minister, the Mayor of Vancouver and other people across the circle.
The walk begins
Fig.6. Memorial Hearts
It is pouring with rain. We are handed heart-shaped flags with the name of a woman, missing or dead, written very carefully onto the hearts. Everyone is holding up their hearts around the circle.
Fig.7. Women holding the handmade Banners
Fig.8. People gather at the start of the walk.
Kerry tells us that “the hearts are new this year and the banner in front of us, the panels were either sewn by women at the Women’s Centre or by family members and so they’re representing each of the serial killer victims.”
Fig.9. Representing murdered family members
Everyone starts to sing the Women’s Warrior Song, an incredibly powerful opening to the walk. The drums, beat and voices are loud and strong. Kerry and Jessica sing along.
Kerry tells us that
the Women’s Warrior song celebrates the strength and resilience of women, it’s a power song like it’s not a mourning song and it gets sung quite often down here and I always really like it. I’m seeing a lot more energy and strength in this group here which is really good to see, you know it’s more the power of women rather than the victimhood.
The elders lead the procession and eventually, we move. Kerry points out some of the “beautiful button blankets, button ropes that the women make” and says:
The other lovely thing about this march there’s a lot of Chinese elders there from Chinatown and there’s always a group of women, elderly Chinese women who march along with the women because they use the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre. They face a lot of racism in this community which is kind of disturbing, and so and I would hear from some people about how they’re taking up space in the line-ups for food and stuff and I’d say ‘well they’re poor too and you need to remember that they march with you to remember your sisters every year, right?’ and like Chinatown is undergoing gentrification as well and these poor, you know it’s the same with the SROs it’s the same issue, these elderly Chinese people have nowhere to go like and I’m sure, Maggie, you’ve seen the difference in this neighbourhood since you were here last time, the amount of gentrification, it’s insane.
I had indeed, Hastings Street was almost unrecognisable around Pigeon park and where the Megaphone and the award-winning social enterprise United We Can had had their offices. I had even walked past a Versace at Home shop on Cordova Street, a little further down towards Gastown from Waves Coffee shop and was staggered at the very contrast with the poverty all around.
Fig.10. Vercase Shop Front
Not creeping gentrification but a gallop
We talk about gentrification as a gallop, not the creeping gentrification I witnessed six years ago. Jessica tells us that she “lives in the community here and does not know who shops here” and for her, “it is no longer creeping gentrification, but a gallop”.
Kerry agrees and talks about both the movement of young professionals into the community and the displacement of long-term residents.
Young hipster professionals think it’s edgy to live down here but the people who call this place home and who have been here for so long feel that they’re being displaced and this community has such a long history of displacement for its Indigenous people. There was a black community that was erased from down here, the Japanese community was erased.
For Jessica, this current wave is yet “another generation of appropriation of land, space, community and it’s sickening and it needs to stop”.
Kerry and Jessica discussed where people are displaced to and the common discourse in media about the need “to clean up the Downtown Eastside” and for Jessica, this is an example of “social cleansing.” She felt very strongly that “we also need to keep educating people that move into the neighbourhood, they say ‘yes well the neighbourhood’s going to clean up’ and I say “well what do you mean by that? There is a community here.” Both women had examples of seeing expressions of extreme wealth in the area, such as “a million dollar’s worth of vehicles parked in a one block radius” and shoppers wearing their wealth ostentatiously; and the stark contrast with the visible poverty and health problems. They tell us that the unlicensed street market along Hastings Street has been ‘cleaned out’ and moved away and “it’s not working of course because it’s stupid”. Jessica tells us:
Yes and in the last couple of months they had the police patrolling where the unofficial market in front of United has always been and I love it, it always reminds me of being in Africa actually, because it’s like you have people fixing the bikes all the way to people selling whatever. And it’s a need like somebody only has two dollars but they have needs that need to be met and they can’t go into a regular store. The police were there to get them to leave otherwise you risk being arrested or ticketed and whatnot. So there was one day I walked home from work and it was maybe four or five in the evening which usually it’s pretty busy even on a rainy day, it was dead, just me and the police.
Kerry told us about taking an activist from the UK on a tour of the neighbourhood and the police were street cleaning, she burst into tears and Kerry wrote the chief of police “I bring an activist from the UK here to show her this community and your police are rousting people, what’s going on?”
Jessica and Kerry tell us that there were protests “but still like now it’s like a dead zone. Because the minute you set up there the police are going to roll up on you and get you to move on, and the fines are ridiculous”.
Kerry added that “they calmed down a bit on the ticketing because there was such a fuss raised that they needed to slow down on it but you know but they still pick people up, if the easiest way to pick them up is on unpaid fines, then that’s the excuse that they use”.
The general stigma and stereotyping of people from the DTES was a key issue and the use of bus fines an example of this. “I know the bus fine’s ridiculous. I had to educate a bus driver because he thought that if you were all poor you could get a bus pass I’m like no, you have to be on disability or over sixty-five”
We all looked up at the sky for eagles as we started to walk.
Kerry said, “It’s cloudy, they may be up there, I don’t know if they fly in the rain”.
Kerry pointed out some of the people I had worked with from PACE and the Megaphone in 2010-2011. It was so great to see them especially Suzanne Kilroy.
And we started moving, a slow, sombre walk holding our hearts imprinted with women’s names, we followed the elders/leaders, some wearing traditional costumes and lines of mostly women holding banners.
Kerry urges us “Keep moving, keep moving”.
Jan and Jessica tell us their fingers have “gone numb”. I’m holding an umbrella, the sound recorder and my camera are tucked away in a bag to prevent water damage.
Fig.11.Families and children attend the walk
Kerry points to the children, carried, walking along or in pushchairs.
Sex Work and The Evolution of the Walk
I was surprised at the lack of red umbrellas and any signs that many of the missing and dead had been sex trade workers. Kerry tells me that the march is about more than the Pickton case, that it is now a national issue, with marches taking place in other places at the very same time and that it is also focused very much as an Indigenous-led event. The families of the dead and missing women lead the march alongside the DTES women’s centre. In fact, no red umbrellas are allowed and no symbols to do with the politics of sex work.
The press release highlights the focus on the government’s plan for a national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women.
The government’s current plan for the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women should focus on three key issues: the overall status of Indigenous women in Canada, addressing systemic and male violence against Indigenous women, and safe and respectful participation of families and loved ones including families of the heart, frontline workers and Indigenous feminist organizations,” says Fay Blaney, co-chair of the February 14th Women’s Memorial March Committee.
Kerry tells us that
I don’t have any problem with the march evolving over time, but it’s it evolved in a way that just erases the reality of the serial killer case and why those women were targeted, which had everything to do with their sex working so yes, it just it hurts my heart because you know nobody cared about them when they were living, no one really cared when they disappeared and then to have them disappeared again, you know?
Kerry tells us that there is a specific walk in June that honours the dead and missing sex workers that also highlights the rights of sex work, recognition, respect and decriminalization.
I say that I will have to return to take part in the June walk!
In the context of what seems to be a sweeping uptake of the so-called ‘Swedish model’ of criminalising the purchasers, not the women, another kind of binary distinction is reinforced as well as the attendant risks to the safety of sex workers afforded by this model. It seems even more important to create space to demand the safety, recognition and well-being of sex workers.
as sex workers, we’re this incredibly tiny, marginalised population and in trying to find a voice for ourselves they keep cutting off avenues for us to speak. So by focusing on health and safety it speaks into the inherently harmful, yet by asserting the right to work it’s like oh well only privileged white sex workers would assert that right so it’s like every way to have our voices heard gets drowned out and it’s by other women so you know it’s like you know – are we not women too?
We talk for a while about sexual violence, colonial domination and for Kerry the
huge issue of the targeting Indigenous women due to systemic racism at much higher rates, but we end up getting divided, right and it’s like the powers that be like it that way. And it’s not good for Indigenous women whose lives are over-criminalised as it is, who are you know under police surveillance all the time.
Jessica and Kerry agree that the issue of safety, given the recent enactment of C36, is contradictory and that that is the irony. To add a further layer of complexity the discourse of trafficking is often conflated with street sex work.
Indigenous Women and Girls Lives Matter
Jessica who had just finished her masters in Winnipeg spoke about the situation there for Indigenous women and girls.
Out of all the cities I’ve been in, like Winnipeg’s amazing, there’s a strong presence but at the same time I would not want to be an Indigenous girl or woman in the city – you are a target.
Kerry told us that there is a new service there for Indigenous women so that they don’t have to take taxis because of complaints against treatment, including assaults by taxi drivers. Jessica added that the service is Indigenous people driving Indigenous women and girls around so that they don’t have to take a taxi because it’s just too dangerous for them.
But still even just walking [laughs] you’re not safe like you’re not. Like here I can walk how I’ve always walked, like I can walk two, three, five in the morning. And like there like my friend would be walking from campus at nine like and this man will follow her. Indigenous women are seen as available women and men will follow them and harass them. And returning to the issue of the surveillance of women, well I forget her name but the police actually stopped her two days before she was found dead in the river.
Kerry gave the example of Tina Fontaine as an example of this deeply troubling issue for Indigenous women and girls. She was 15 when she was found. Jessica said:
That was someone’s baby and she was failed in so many ways and that one five minutes that could have changed the course of her life, she wouldn’t have been dead, so it just sickens me, that’s somebody’s baby. And then the torment that grandmother and the family have had. It is systematic injustice.
The Huffington Post reported on the case of Tina Fontaine and highlighted a report published by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in 2014 that “put the total of missing and murdered Aboriginal women at 1,181. Although Indigenous women make up 4.3 per cent of the Canadian population, the report found they account for 16 per cent of female homicides and 11.3 per cent of missing women”.
Jan spoke about the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement as “probably the most significant movement in since Occupy and that Indigenous lives matter”.
We paused at the first stop along the walk-we were now on Main street walking towards the junction with Alexander Street, near the overpass towards CRAB park.
Kerry tells us
So, CRAB Park, you’re going to be getting sort of close to it but it’s on the other side of the overpass and then that’s where that memorial stone is. So I think what they do is they go down Alexander to Carrall and then they go south again and I think to Hastings Street, it might be Cordova and then they’ll go up to whatever it’s called, Oppenheimer Park I think.
I could smell what I thought was incense. Kerry tells me:
No, what you’re smelling is Sweetgrass, it is burnt as an offering and a rose is left at the site of where a woman was found or last seen. And that’s what people use to smudge with so that’s a spiritual cleansing. So what you do is you cleanse your eyes so that you can see clearly, you cleanse your ears so that you can hear clearly, you cleanse your mouth so that you speak kindly then I think you clean your, you pull it over your head you know over your body, down your arms, down your legs so that you’re strong and then the last is your heart.
Kerry suggested this was a good spot for a photograph to get a sense of the scale of the walkers and tells us that “they’re laying a rose down there. So when we get down to the overpass I’ll tell you a bit more about CRAB Park”.
Fig.12.Walkers wait in silence as the first rose is laid
Fig.13. Jessica holds a banner with others
CRAB Park and the Missing Women’s Memorial Stone.
We stop on Corner of Main and Alexander. Kerry tells us that every stop along the route is a place where a woman was last seen.
For many of them they just disappeared, so no bodies have been found and only DNA was found. So one of the reasons CRAB Park means so much is my friend Maggie de Vries, her sister Sarah was murdered and when I first came to PACE as a member I was given her book to read and I was very touched by it.
I’m adopted as well and there was a good part about adoption in there and then Maggie was on the hiring panel when I got hired at PACE as well and more recently she wrote a book for young people called Rabbit Ears. So she found out years afterwards that her sister had been sexually abused, you know as a kid, and that’s probably what started the running away and made her vulnerable. So she wrote a fictional story but her fictional character meets Sarah in the story and Sarah writes about it in her own writing and it shows up in Rabbit Ears. There’s a piece where they’re in CRAB Park on the swings at night and Sarah’s telling her that she has to get out of here or she’s not going to survive. I always felt an affinity for Sarah because of what Sarah wrote.
So Maggie has her writings and there was a piece she wrote about adoption about not belonging and having no history and no ancestry and no motherland and that really spoke to me. I got to a place in my life in my forties, because that had been a real problem for me most of my life, but I got to a place later in life where that became a source of strength for me where I am now, you know the sovereign nation of Kerry and that’s OK. I have my own history but Sarah never lived long enough to get to that place, she never lived long enough to be able to heal her pain and so yes CRAB Park’s always had this special place in my heart, partly because of that, partly because I just I love it.
The history of CRAB Park in itself was low income people who wanted a beach and wanted a park and someplace beautiful to go in their neighbourhood and so they lobbied and got CRAB Park established and I always like that part of it as well and then it’s just this little island of tranquillity in a that’s Jenny Kwan just there who’s the new MP. She took over from Libby Davis who was our MP for many years.
Kerry added that she likes this part of the march
because it’s the only place where you can look back and kinda see how many people are around and then we get into this weird part where we go through Gastown, the tourist area which I always found a little bit uncomfortable, because you would get outraged tourists who are so unhappy that these people are in their way or restaurant owners trying to chase you off the sidewalk. So it was never my favourite part of the march but I think they’ve had a really good turnout this year it was a bit sparse at the beginning, I was a bit worried.
Sex worker march in June
Kerry told us about the annual sex worker march in June, “is about being loud and proud to be sex workers so we dress up in some pretty ridiculous outfits and it needs to be warm for them”.
We usually march the second Saturday in June. The first year we did it was in 2013 and it was a few days before the final appeal of the Bedford case and so a group I work with here called the Triple X Workers Solidarity Association of BC, which is a professional association of sex workers, we started the march and we also put a call out to the rest of Canada and so marches were held across Canada on that day and that continues to happen so we’ve kind of started a tradition which is nice. I was just saying that’s why we plan our sex worker march for June when it’s a hell of a lot warmer.
At this point, we could follow the line of walkers to the end of the line. Kerry tells us:
Yes and so you get a lot of social justice people, you get a lot of you know you have the feminists come out. A lot of Indigenous people, families yes people bring their kids out, politicians always come out, chief of police often marches. The mayor always does and other city councillors.
I ask if there is an Indigenous presence at the sex work march in June. Kerry tells me there is.
Yes, the Sex Workers United Against Violence march with us. The first year we did the march because we were starting in downtown Vancouver, the women weren’t sure whether they were going to be comfortable. We didn’t know how many people were going to come out or what the reaction was going to be, so they decided to meet us at Victory Square and so you know we did our rally at the Art Gallery and we marched down Granville Street and there they were waiting at Victory Square.
We planned to march down Cordova I think because we were a bit concerned about an out loud sex worker march where we’re like ‘my body my business’ or ‘a blow job is better than no job’ it was like very overt sex-positive messages. We weren’t sure what that was going to be like, marching down Hastings Street, so we meet the women of SWUAV and I tell them what the route is and they’re like ‘we’re walking down Hastings Street it’s our neighbourhood’ and I’m like OK.
So we marched down the centre of Hastings Street and people lined the sidewalks and they cheered and people hung out of the SRO windows and cheered, cars honked at us and so the second and third year they came to the Art Gallery. We told them like we had nothing but support on Granville Street and so they come with us every time and as soon as we get to Victory Square, because it’s usually the Triple X banners in front, we switch and they go up front so that they’re leading the march through their own neighbourhood and yes and it’s a really, it’s a really awesome, happy parade.
Jan and I say we would love to be part of that.
Yes, we have so much fun and if you check out pictures like if you go to the Triple X website you can find pictures, you’ll see me wearing some like really ridiculous outfits [laughs]. That’s part of the thing, yes, so we tell people to wear costumes and dress in red.
We were stopped by another walker. She said:
I’m not walking! This thing is heavy so I’m not walking. Oh, you’re talking.
She is carrying what looks like a huge dream catcher, she greets us warmly and I ask her about the symbols.
Oh these are just my meditation and memories you know and I have stories like I just take it out of my head and I put them on there. And the colours mean a lot of things too.
We tell her its beautiful and I ask her for permission to take some photographs. “You betcha! No problem!” Kerry tells her “it’s gorgeous I have to say I love that”.
She tells us the Dreamcatcher “represents a meditation as well as the women who are missing, have experienced violence, bullying and sexual violence. A Lot of sorrow, sorrow, sorrow. There are a couple of big ones in the art gallery and hanging from her window“
We thank her for showing it to us and Jan tells her “That’s a great balance, you’ve got the heart but then you’ve got a lot of, it’s so meaningful”.
She tells us that she
took the invisible hero as a model. I saw a murder when I was eight years old and went to residential after that murder. I’d been there sixteen years, I didn’t get no help and now I took this group of invisible heroes and finally we have a book called Invisible Heroes. Go and get it in Carnegie. Oh, they call me baby, baby because I call everybody baby.
She tells us she is leaving now and to have happy hearts. We tell her it was really nice to meet her and she thanks us for talking with her.
At this point, Kerry had to leave too and I thanked her. It was great that she met Jan, given their respective work and feminist approaches and that we had walked a little way with Jessica too, who now carrying a banner and had moved ahead of us.
I tell Kerry that I really appreciate the time she has given in sharing the walk and that it has been totally brilliant to reconnect and be here with her on this day.
After saying our goodbye’s Jan and I follow the route up towards the Carnegie.
Fig.16. A memorial
Soaking wet, we return to the hotel.
In reflecting later about the walks and the amazing women I had walked with, I was reminded about the way that walking is such a powerful way of connecting, thinking and creating space for sharing and dialogue.
Walking with Kerry, Jessica and Jan had been such an important learning process but together we had covered a lot of ground, not only the evolution and politics of the march but in connecting the march to the bigger picture of violence against sex workers and violence against Indigenous women.
The march itself is a memorial and memorialisation, a reminder and a symbol of protest and resistance. The start and close of the walk is marked by a healing circle, the rituals (sweetgrass and laying of roses), the colors and banners, traditional blankets and clothing, the drumming and women’s warrior song all add to the rhythm of the walk, the walking, stopping, remembering, all are a reminder of our social connectedness.
The fact that the ability to move freely around the city, take and hold of space is an important aspect of both the missing women’s march and the sex worker march in June, an assertion of the right to the city and space, transgressing the borders and boundaries of stigma, race and sexual and social inequalities.
I look forward to taking part in a sex worker march in Vancouver and thought about the possibility of a walk akin to the working class and labour history walk that Leslie Kemp and her partner had kindly given to me, organised by the labour heritage centre.
A walk detailing the history of sex work in Vancouver would be a really great contribution to the politics and understanding of sex work in Vancouver.