One Hundred Years of Struggle

“We need to educate the people about their rights and how to fight for them.”
~ Bruce Eriksen (1)

* * *

The history of
the Downtown Eastside
is a history
of the struggle
for human rights.
First Nations people
have fought for a just
land claims settlement
for over one hundred years,
and we take inspiration
from their example,
especially in these dark days
when we feel
we are losing control
of our lives
to global economic wars,
or mega-projects
that overwhelm our neighbourhoods.

In the Downtown Eastside
working men and women
fought for the eight hour day
and the right
to form trade unions.
The Vancouver and District Labour Council,
one of the oldest Labour Councils in Canada,
started in 1889.
In 1903, Frank Rogers
was picketing for
the striking United Brotherhood
of Railway Engineers
when he was shot and killed
by a C. P. R. hired guard
at the food of Gore Avenue.
In 1918, Canada’s
first General Strike
took place in Vancouver
to protest the murder
of Ginger Goodwin,
a labour organizer
from Cumberland, B. C.
In 1919, there was
another General Strike
in sympathy with
the Winnipeg General Strike
during the Great Depression
of the 1930s.
Unemployed men
in the Downtown Eastside
fought for the right
to food, shelter,
work and wages.
In April, 1935,
Mayor McGeer read the Riot Act
at Vicotry Square
to two thousand
unemployed men.
Willis Shaparla was there,
and he commented,
“When hungry Canadians
were asking for food,
McGeer read us the Riot Act.”
Soon after the occupation
of the Carnegie Museum
by three hundred unemployed workers
in May, 1935,
the men of the
Relief Camp Workers’ Union
began the On-To-Ottawa Trek.
Then in June of that year
one thousand longshoremen
were attacked by police
near Ballantyne Pier
as a result
of a lockout and strike.
Longshoremen had been fighting
for their own union
since the 1800s,
and by 1944 they had a strong union
that protected their rights.
On May 20, 1938,
unemployed men looking for relief
occupied the Vancouver Art Gallery,
the Georgia Hotel
and the Post Office
at Granville and Hastings.
Gradually, the occupation
shifted to the Post Office
which the police attacked
on June 19th.
Over one hundred men were hurt
in the ensuing struggle.
That night ten thousand people attended a rally
at the Powell Street Grounds,
now called Oppenheimer Park,
in support of
the homeless, hungry men.
In September, 1939,
the Government of Canada
would ask these unemployed men
to fight for their country.
They did fight,
and many of them
had the dream
of a better Canada
after the war was over.
In 1995, federal public servants
occupied the old Post Office,
now the Sinclar Centre,
to protest a federal budget
that planned to throw
fifty thousand of these workers
into the anguish of unemployment.

Chinatown and Japantown,
called Powell Street by citizens
of Japanese background,
were also part of
the Downtown Eastside.
At first people lived
in these communities
because they weren’t allowed
to live anywhere else,
but as the years went by,
Chinatown and Japantown
became centers of resistance
against injustice,
and they shaped their history
with courage and endurance.
From 1881 to 1885
Chinese labourers helped build
the Pacific Section
of the Canadian Pacific Railway.
At least six hundred
Chinese workers died
building that track.
In 1887, three hundred white men
beat up a camp
of sleeping Chinese workers
at Coal Harbour.
In 1907, another race riot
Broke out, and a violent mob
Rampaged through Chinatown
and Japantown.
During the Great Depression
one hundred and seventy-five
Chinese people
died of starvation in Chinatown. (2)

After the attack
on Pearl Harbour
on December 7, 1941,
the federal government
uprooted the entire population
of Canadian citizens
of Japanese origin,
and moved innocent people
to internment camps
with no regard
for human rights
or family ties.
True, the war was
going badly in 1941.
Before the end of the year
nearly two thousand Canadians
were killed or captured
when Japanese troops
entered Hong Kong.
Panic, and fear of
a race riot,
may explain the action
of the Canadain government,
but they do not excuse it.
Not one Canadian
of Japanese origin
was found guilty
of any offence
against the security of Canada
throughout the war.
After a long fight
for human rights,
Japanese Canadians won redress,
and on September 22, 1988,
Prime Minister Brian Mulroney
formally apologized
on behalf of
the Government of Canada
for wrongfully interning
and seizing the property of
Canadians of Japanese background.
Although Japantown never regained
Its prewar size,
the Powell Street Festival
has become an annual celebration
of the Japanese Canadian community,
and Chinatown has become
a busy social, commercial
and tourist centre
with a highly respected
international reputation.

In 1968 the Strathcona
Property Owners and Tenants
Association (SPOTA),
was formed to stop
the disastrous urban
renewal plans of city Council.
SPOTA stopped the bulldozers
and saved Strathcona.
Bessis Lee of SPOTA remarked,
“We have to remind the city
that when they decide
to change things in a community,
they must always consider
the total planning
of that community,
and the concerns of the people
who live in it.” (3)

The Downtown Eastside
Residents’ Association (DERA)
would agree with that statement.
Since the early 1970s
DERA has fought
to establish the right
of the community
to change its image
from skid road
to the Downtown Eastside
and to win
much needed services
for the members of
Vancouver’s oldest neighbourhood.
“The people who live here,
they call it the Downtown Eastside,”
Bruce Eriksen said,
and in 1983
Mayor Harcourt of Vancouver
presented a civic award to DERA
which declared that
this citizens organization
had helped to change
the perception of
part of Vancouver,
formerly known as skid road,
to the Downtown Eastside.
In the 1980s, DERA,
with Jim Green as organizer,
addressed the right to housing
in the Downtown Eastside
by building low income housing.
The DERA Housing Co-op
was completed in 1985,
and the Four Sisters Co-op
was finished in 1987.

In the 1970s, citizens
of the Downtown Eastside
fought for seven years
to win the Carnegie Community Centre
for the neighbourhood.
Later, they won Crab Park,
and in 1985, they started
the Strathcona Community Gardens
which empowered the community
through the creative act
of planting seeds.
Downtown Eastside poets,
such as Tora and Bud Osborn,
and the Carnegie Newsletter,
edited by Paul Taylor,
gave a powerful voice
to the community,
as did the books of Sheila Baxter.
This writing showed
that human beings
could forcefully reject
the negative image
ascribed to them,
and replace it
with a community of caring
that speaks from the heart.

In 1995, the Downtown Eastside,
in co-operation with friends
all over Vancouver,
defeated a casino mega-project
that would have done great harm
to both the community
and the City of Vancouver,
and in recent years
the Vancouver Area Network
of Drug Users (VANDU),
the occupiers of Woodward’s
in the Woodsquat campaign,
homeless people in tent villages,
and Latinos in Action,
have fought courageously
for respect, dignity,
and the opportunity
to lead a meaningful life.
Remember also the glorious
Downtown Eastside Community Play
that was part of the celebrations
for the Carnegie Library’s 100th birthday
in the year 2003.
This play expressed the energy
and the caring
of our beloved community.

Now the Downtown Eastside
is under siege
from the gentrification
that has destroyed
many inner city neighbourhoods.
The fight for survival
is a desperate one, as developers,
in their haste for profit,
dehumanize the people who live here.
A discussion paper
prepared for the
Gastown Improvement Society in 1992,
referred to Downtown Eastside residents as
“those social service clients who frequent the area.” (4)
A Simon Fraser University instructor,
when talking of the human beings
who call the Downtown Eastside
their home, said,
“they get moved along’
they get kicked out.
Those poor buggers
are used to it.
They always get disenfranchised. (5)

When men of great power
deny the humanity of human beings
and the history of a community,
they tend to think
that they can destroy
both the people
and the place
without moral qualms.
The Downtown Eastside has
a long history, however,
and a rugged identity.
It is not expendable,
and it is not just skid road.
We are strong
when we stand in solidarity
with those who have fought
For human rights
for over one hundred years.
Memory is the mother of community.

 ~ Sandy Cameron

* * *

(1) Quoted in Hasson, Shlomo, and David Ley—Neighbourhood Organizations and the Welfare State, published by the University of Toronto Press, 1994, chapter 6, “The Downtown Eastside:  ‘One Hundred Years of Struggle,’ page 178.

(2)Vancouver’s Chinatown—Racial Discourse in Canada, 1875-1980, by Kay J. Anderson, page 143.

(3)An interview with Bessie Lee in the book Opening Doors, Vancouvers’ East End, by Daphne Martlett.

(4)Carnegie Action Project Newsletter, September 15, 1996.

(5)”Gastown ideal for single women,” by Fiona Hughes, the Vancouver Courier, January 21, 1996.

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