Lost in My Ignorance and Stigma: Walking Through the DTES in 2013’s Women’s Memorial March

This is a guest post by CYH volunteer, Lyon Lin. Photographs from the Georgia Straight

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A pair of eagles followed our prayers as we slowly climbed Hastings Street. Mindfully marching down the street, neighbours watched or greeted us whether they were high above on balconies or on the sidewalk beside us. There were a lot of quick meetings around me, and if not for the sisters up front and around us praying, this march would seem more like only a large, public social gathering. My eyes definitely darted around voyeuristically, not because I wanted to, it’s just been a long time since I’ve been to the area. Also, I wore my glasses when usually, I don’t, and that clarity captivated my attention as I attempted to compare memories from when I was quite young. I mostly have a psychological reason for whether or not I’m wearing my glasses. Quite simply it’s easier for me to isolate myself in public and not have to pay any attention to anything other than lights and traffic, that is if I do go out in public. Change in the neighbourhood is slightly noticeable with the odd empty space with signs for new development promising low income housing units and new businesses here and there, and obviously around the periphery as new development encroaches on the neighbourhood.

I didn’t know much about the Missing Women’s Inquiry, sadly because it’s something the adults in my life and neighbourhood growing up never cared to talk about. Of course that doesn’t absolve me. I didn’t know that the Women’s Memorial March that I attended has been going since before I was born. Even when Kyla (from CYH) called it a protest while we were marching in Gastown, I asked her why because I naively believed the Inquiry accomplished its goals. I was no expert on the area or the participants of the march either.

As a kid walking with my mother through Chinatown and the DTES, I remember a feeling of intimidation as my mother silently ignored people that were in a state of euphoria or delusion even as I asked her about them, being curious and also insensitive. My stigma of the DTES is something my childhood still remotely reminds me, and it’s something that all my knowledge and personal experience with mental illness still does not erase. My mother and I ought to be more acquainted with poverty, she raised me by herself on a low income, but we lucked out because her parents bought a house a long time ago in one of the most affluent neighbourhoods in Vancouver. I’m acclimatized to a life where people make poverty seem as abstract as how charitable donations are financially processed for the very same. Even if I’m not acclimatized to a life of psychological wellbeing, stigma is a concept within me that I haven’t cognitively eliminated.

When the march stopped in front of the Provincial Court, a woman by the spirit name of Singing Eagle Sister told the crowd about living with her sister, a victim of Robert Pickton, and how her life became a mimicry of her slain sister as she turned to substance abuse to cope with her loss and the sex trade to support herself. Telling us that she’s been clean and sober for a few years was heart wrenching and inspirational, and a young person in front of me slowly started to cry as Singing Eagle’s speech went on. Her friend comforted her afterwards. I myself connected with a rather mundane therapeutic concept about living life in the present, day to day, which as she said is something that therapy really emphasizes; this, she said, is instead of constantly living with her sister’s last words or with information of how the RCMP found her.

With my glasses, I could see office workers in the court building watch us, I’m sure they barely heard us because some in the crowd could barely hear Singing Eagle, a few yelling: “louder!” The court workers quickly turn away. It would be easy to judge them negatively, but I know that I and maybe much of our city seems to do just the same.

Unfortunately I’ve already forgotten the woman and her sister’s non-Spirit names, and to be honest I don’t know any of the names of the lost, though I’ve probably seen some of their faces in local news at some point. I know, I know, how could I be attending a memorial march for women I don’t even know?

Yet I have learned this: the march has entered its 22nd year; they have been fighting for women long before the Crown, the Judiciary and our Police forces decided to investigate. It now takes place Canada wide.

It has continued because the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry led by the prestigious Wally Oppal has failed to completely answer why the community has lost their sisters.

It has continued because even after more than two decades of protest, the Inquiry didn’t heed their voices.

It has continued in memory of the hundreds of other missing women (especially indigenous women) across Canada and especially in BC. As the public learns only now from NGOs how the RCMP abuses Indigenous Women. (The full Human Rights Watch report is available here)

It has continued because fair and equal justice has yet to be accorded to people that have suffered too much and fought too hard for too long against a system that is indifferent to how it intentionally marginalizes the people of the DTES.

When can the community finally stop having to march in protest so it can march in memory with peace?

As callow as I am to the spiritual activities during the march that day, at the very least I hope that praying worked, the spirit of the lost are free, and the wounded be healed.

And I hope that people would clear their myopia to better empathize with the DTES or with anyone who copes with mental illness, as I attempted to this Valentine’s Day.

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