Pete McMartin in the Sun covers a contentious issue:
Last Friday, at the corner of Jervis and Pendrell in the West End, a ceremony was held to unveil what is known as the West End Sex Workers Memorial.
It’s a Victorian-style lamppost with a red light honouring the neighbourhood’s sex workers who plied their trade from the 1960s to the mid-1980s. “Today, we commemorate and honour their lives,” its inscription stated. The City of Vancouver paid $28,000 for its construction.
Unstated on the memorial, but not left unsaid in speeches at the memorial’s unveiling, was its censure of West End citizens, politicians and the provincial legal community who, at that time, acted to force sex workers out of the neighbourhood.
“Censure,” however, is too watery a word in this case, since the memorial’s proponents drew a line of causation between the sex workers’ exile from the West End and, ultimately, murder. They claim the sex workers’ forced migration out of the West End to the Seymour and Richards strolls, and to the Downtown Eastside, left them vulnerable to predators like Robert Pickton.
“These actions,” said city councillor Andrea Reimer, near tears, “reflected how the community broadly saw safety at that time. We now know that that view and those actions resulted in great harm to others in the community, namely sex workers. Not just harm — that’s a very soft word for the abduction, torture and murder of many women.” She added that the memorial was “a reminder to me and our community that justice has to live for everyone or it lives for none of us.”
A few days prior to the unveiling, former city councillor and urban planner Gordon Price received a call from someone in the city’s social planning department. The call was a heads-up. In 1980, Price had been a founding member of CROWE — Concerned Residents of the West End — and as such, had organized efforts to deal with what many residents felt had become an intolerable public nuisance.
In the 1980s, the neighbourhood had become an open bazaar. Police had identified some 350 sex workers in the West End — 40 to 50 of whom might be working the streets at any one time. Non-residents came to gawk. There were complaints of noise, increased traffic, public urination, sidewalk confrontations and residents being propositioned for sex. Problems were exacerbated when sex workers, who traditionally had stuck to Davie, began working residential streets.
In 1984, when the attorney-general’s department asked the B.C. Supreme Court to grant an injunction against the sex workers, West End residents filed over 70 affidavits detailing their complaints. Even a lawyer representing a group of sex workers admitted that “no one questions that the residents of the West End are suffering of the conduct complained of.”
To Price, however, it wasn’t a question of eradicating the West End of prostitution. It was a matter of restoring peaceful cohabitation. That peaceful cohabitation, for him and other residents, had been shattered.
Said Price: “The point of CROWE — and we reiterate this constantly — we’re not talking about prostitution here. If government wants to legalize it and regulate it, great! But there is a fundamental question, about as Canadian as you get, of peace, order and good government. Do the people who live here have a reasonable expectation that there will be, you know, a fundamental level of civility? That their streets aren’t going to be effectively a 24-hour sex bazaar? And … if government can’t or isn’t willing to demonstrate to maintain peace and order, what happens then?”
With the law unwilling or unable to do anything about the residents’ concerns, groups like CROWE and Shame The Johns did what other resident associations had always done — they organized and fought for the integrity of their neighbourhood.
Coun. Reimer may feel the community interpreted the proper level of safety “broadly,” which, as I read her comments, was so broad as to be narrow-minded. But if “justice has to live for everyone or it lives for none of us,” as she said, then the question must be asked: If there was no justice for the residents which afforded them peace and civility, what were they to do?
“The way that the narrative is being written,” Price said, “and this to me seems to be what it’s kind of about, is that the diversity of the West End and the longtime presence of street-soliciting hookers on Davie was disrupted by a small group of people who were basically — as I read it, and I have read it, because I have seen it in one thesis, at least — in a moral panic and basically driven by concern about property values, forced the prostitutes out — and I’m not sure if they say it quite this bluntly, but, you know — into the hands of Pickton.
“And in a way, you know, there’s blood on (the residents’) hands. That’s the most provocative part of it, that they make that connection, which I find appalling and illogical. And this is where I feel very sad,” Price said, “because I’m apparently the bad guy. And I’m deeply hurt.”
Like all memorials, this one was made in hindsight. But this memorial stretches hindsight beyond its breaking point, and rewrites history to reflect a one-sided and unfair culpability.
Will the next memorial, to draw from just one of many possibilities, apologize for the thousands of people who have died from disease and overdose in the Downtown Eastside because they have been conveniently ghettoized there by the city, province and the hundreds of social welfare agencies concentrated there — with the tacit agreement of all the citizens of Metro Vancouver?
And by mentioning it, have I just given someone another wrong-headed idea?
PT: Three questions, at least, arise from this:
Did the City sufficiently consult with those in the West End impacted by the street-soliciting scene that moved onto their residential streets in the late 1970s and early ’80s?
Would the City consider some recognition of those times and concerns, or is the judgment of Council now that the outcome was an injustice and the actions taken were wrong?
If there was a return of street soliciting to the West End (unlikely in the age of the Internet), or a movement into other neighbourhoods, or a continuation of those strolls where it already exists, would the City take any action – or, if not, affirm that a safe space for sex workers is a higher priority than the impacts on residents in those communities?