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After the Games: Report from the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver

In the Shadow of the Olympic Flame: A Report from the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, the Poorest Neighborhood in Canada

AMY GOODMAN: The 2010 Winter Olympics have wrapped up in Vancouver, Canada. The Olympic flame has been doused, and a return to normalcy has begun for a city thrust onto the world stage.

Well, Democracy Now! producer Aaron Maté traveled to Vancouver to look at an issue lost in the two-week spectacle: the struggles of a low-income community in the Olympics’ shadow. He filed this report.

AARON MATÉ: For two weeks, Olympic fever gripped Vancouver’s downtown core. Thousands of people flooded the streets, the logos of corporate sponsors on display at nearly every turn. At the Olympic Superstore, shoppers lined up for several blocks just to buy official merchandise.

OLYMPIC SUPERSTORE REP: There’s tons of people from all over the world with different languages, and they’re coming here because this is the official Olympic Superstore. So everything in here is official with the Olympic. It has the little rings and all that kind of stuff. We have about thirty-two different licensees in here, so we have a wide assortment of products, from a 59-cent postcard to a $7,500 canoe.

AARON MATÉ: The Vancouver Olympics saw a mass display of civic and national pride. But they’ve also intensified a struggle over what kind of a city is left behind. For many people, the front lines of that struggle are in a neighborhood called the Downtown Eastside.

PROTESTERS: 2010 homes, not 2010 Games! 2010 homes, not 2010 Games! Homes, not games! Homes, not games! Homes, not games!

AARON MATÉ: It’s just a short walk from the Olympic festivities, but the Downtown Eastside can feel worlds apart. An area of fifteen square blocks, it’s the poorest postal code in Canada. It has the highest HIV infection rate in North America, an outgrowth of rampant drug use and prostitution. But for decades, right through the Olympics, it’s also been a community of resistance.

PROTESTER: What we have in the Downtown Eastside is the most impacted and one of the most devastated communities as a result of the 2010 Olympic Games. People are being pushed out. People are being shoved around. People are being thrown into jails. And yet, we’re standing here, because this community always fights back and always resists with courage and with love. Thank you, everyone, for being here.

AARON MATÉ: The Winter Olympics cost around $6 billion, nearly $1 billion on security alone. That’s seen as an affront in the Downtown Eastside, where residents have fought to preserve the social services that can mean life or death for many vulnerable people. Libby Davies is a member of the Canadian Parliament.

LIBBY DAVIES: In many cities across North America, inner cities have either been demolished, gentrified, wiped out, or people just left in misery. In this neighborhood, there has been a struggle for more than thirty years to fight back and to say, “This is our community. We have a right to be here. We have a right to live in dignity, in good housing, with parks, with a community center.” And so, this struggle goes on.

ELAINE DUROCHER, DTES Power of Women Group: I think what the effects of the Olympics, that it has on us, is that it takes all the monies away from the poor people, and it puts it all towards—to Olympic venues, the Games, the building, the construction. They forgot about us.

AARON MATÉ: The Vancouver Olympics were initially billed as the world’s first socially sustainable Games. But one key legacy is a squeeze on low-income housing. Harsha Walia is an organizer with the Downtown Eastside Women’s Center and the Olympic Resistance Network.

HARSHA WALIA: The Olympics has spurred on real estate speculation and construction in Vancouver, in general. And the Downtown Eastside has kind of been the last bastion for condo developers. And since the Olympic bid, we’ve seen approximately 1,800 units of market housing and condominiums being built in the Downtown Eastside, while we’ve lost approximately 1,300 units of low-income housing.

AARON MATÉ: The real estate boom has coincided with a contentious record on social housing. Low-income homes have been built, but not enough to meet demand. David Cadman is a Vancouver city councilor.

DAVID CADMAN: The major issue that we wanted to solve with these Olympics, we had a social inclusivity agreement with the national and provincial governments, and our hope was that we would begin to deal with the homelessness crisis in this city.

AARON MATÉ: The social inclusivity agreement spoke of creating a housing legacy and protecting low-income residents from evictions. Am Johal is chair of the Impact on Communities Coalition, which tried to work with Olympic organizers.

AM JOHAL: Literally years after the bid began, civil society organizations were sidelined. Reports that were written, like the Housing Table, which recommended 3,200 units of housing over four years, these reports were essentially shelved. So the commitments that were made ended up being more in the realm of marketing and public relations than a document that was substantive or something that could actually be—that we could hold governments to account.

AARON MATÉ: The Olympic Athlete’s Village was to be the centerpiece of the Games’ social housing legacy. Two hundred and fifty units are designated for social housing after the athletes leave town. But the village has been a financial disaster. After the global economic crisis, private financing collapsed, forcing the city to put up around $1 billion to finish construction. With that kind of price tag, the social housing units could be sold off.

AM JOHAL: This has happened—happening exactly at the same time as Olympic infrastructure was being built, like speed skating ovals and luge tracks. In the case of security, we have $900 million being spent over—you know, literally over a two-month period. And so, these one-time costs, it’s very difficult not to compare them to the lack of social investment that’s going on.

AARON MATÉ: The focus on private development over social housing is felt all over the city. Just two months before the Olympic Games, developers began bulldozing one of the oldest social housing projects in Canada. Built in the 1950s, the Little Mountain housing complex was home to over 700 people.

ELLEN WOODSWORTH: Two hundred twenty-four units of perfectly good social housing were torn down. It would have taken as little as $10,000 per unit to fix them up. Fifteen acres of public land was sold off to the highest corporate bidder.

AARON MATÉ: That’s Vancouver City Council member Ellen Woodsworth. She took us to the ruins of Little Mountain on her sixth day of a seven-day hunger strike for a national housing program in Canada. Woodsworth tried to prevent the demolition and now fights to ensure the social housing units are replaced. But there are no guarantees.

ELLEN WOODSWORTH: This is really just so terrible that you would take people out of perfectly good housing and destroy a site and just leave it vacant. This could be empty for ten years. This developer has no experience with building housing. It’s just such a tragedy when this whole country—if you got, you know, thousands of people homeless in Vancouver, and you got 200,000 people homeless across the country, and twelve people in BC have died from homelessness each year, it’s outrageous that they would have done this.

AARON MATÉ: One building prevented the demolition of their homes. But developers vow to force them out. Back in the Downtown Eastside, residents are also standing up. On day four of the Olympics, hundreds of people took over a vacant lot owned by a major condo developer, erecting Tent Village.

STELLA AUGUST, DTES Power of Women Group: It’s to stand for the government to see that our people need homes. We need them now. And we’re desperate for these people, because we have too many people getting sick and dying, out sleeping out in the cold.

RICKY, Olympic Tent Village: This is part of my family down here. And I’m going to—I don’t give a care if I get arrested or not. I am a warrior, because I am handicapped. I am sick and tired of what the police are doing to the Aboriginal people. They’re beaten up with sticks, and they’re being dragged by their hair. I have—I’m one of them, that’s got the same thing as the brothers and sisters out there. To me, it’s rough to live down here, because people walk by and they look at us like we’re garbage.

ERIC CASTONGUAY, Olympic Tent Village: They want us to get out of here. But like we said, we’re going to stay here until we win.

AARON MATÉ: So what are you painting here?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN, Olympic Tent Village: I’m painting “Housing is a human right.”

AARON MATÉ: And you’re staying here in the tent city?


AARON MATÉ: And why are you here? Why are you taking part in this?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Why am I taking part? Because I believe that people have a right to have a house. People have a right to have somewhere to be called their own.

AARON MATÉ: And how long do you plan to stay?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I plan on staying here as long as necessary.

PETER DERANGE, Olympic Tent Village: I am homeless also, myself. I have no place to stay. So I come here to a supportive tent city. Maybe we can bring attention to the world what is happening to the [inaudible]. The richest country in the world, and us native people and all other people who are homeless, we are forced to live in the streets.

AARON MATÉ: Down the street from Tent Village, a large crowd has gathered for the Women’s Memorial March. It’s held every year to honor the over 3,000 missing and murdered women in Canada since the 1970s, one of many issues disproportionately affecting the country’s indigenous population. Today, over thirty women are reported missing from the Downtown Eastside.

MOTHER OF MISSING DAUGHTER: I’m here to remember my daughter. Her remains were found four years after she went missing.

BROTHER OF MISSING SISTER: My sister was twenty-six years old when she was reported missing.

GLENDENE GRANT: My daughter Jessie Foster went missing March 29, 2006.

AUNT OF TAMARA LYNN CHIPMAN: My niece Tamara Lynn Chipman went missing out of Prince Rupert, September 21st, 2005.

AARON MATÉ: A local farmer, Robert Pickton, has been convicted of killing six women and is accused in the deaths of at least twenty others. Organizers want a public inquiry into how police respond to reports of missing women and whether any deaths could have been avoided.

WOMEN’S MEMORIAL MARCHER: As soon as maybe someone that is of a richer—from a richer family, as soon as they go missing, a lady goes missing, they have investigations. But our ladies don’t get investigated.

FAY BLANEY, Aboriginal Women’s Action Network: The police are extremely unresponsive. The entire justice system is unresponsive to missing and murdered Aboriginal women, not just in BC, but all across the country.

DALANNAH GAIL BOWEN, Musician: We deserve to be respected. We deserve to be treated like human beings.

AARON MATÉ: This is the march’s nineteenth year. This year, city officials approached organizers about canceling it during Olympic festivities. But the march committee held its ground, and the largest-ever crowd turned out.

The Olympic Committee wanted this march to be delayed.

FAY BLANEY: They did, yes. You know, we’re here to stand up for the missing and murdered Aboriginal women, and they’re not going to stop us. They can try, which they did. The police came and met with our organizing committee, but we’re not willing to hold back the march.

DOROTHY CHRISTIAN, DTES Resident: This is absolutely incredible. And it’s beautiful, you know, that all the people have come out. And I’m glad that the VANOC committee wasn’t able to cancel it, that the people stood by their guns and that the people in this community in the Downtown Eastside are able to maintain their presence throughout the Olympics.

AARON MATÉ: As the most underprivileged neighborhood in a port city overrun with heroin, cocaine and crystal meth, the Downtown Eastside’s drug epidemic is staggering. It’s now the most concentrated area of drug use in North America.

LIBBY DAVIES: That’s been a tremendous transformation in the neighborhood. Like, it could have been one of those issues where people got divided between good people and bad people, good citizens, bad citizens. And what happened was that people came together, and the drug users themselves started speaking out and saying, “We have rights. And we need healthcare, and we need housing, and we need to have our rights respected.”

AARON MATÉ: One outgrowth of this movement is the Portland Hotel Society, which runs domiciles for people living with issues including drug addiction, mental health disorders and HIV. The Portland also runs Insite, the only safe-injection clinic in North America. It faces the constant threat of closure from the right-wing Canadian government. Mark Townsend is the Portland’s executive director.

MARK TOWNSEND: It came about because in the projects that we were working in, which were primary housing projects down here, people were dying. They were overdosing. And also they were, you know, sharing rigs, or if they were using the alleys, they were using puddle water and stuff. And it seemed that that didn’t seem right. And it seemed that maybe we could do something to make it a little bit better for people who are so pushed to the margins of society.

AARON MATÉ: How long have you been coming to Insite?

UNIDENTIFIED ADDICT: I guess pretty much since I’ve been a user of needles, about three years. They’re great people here.

AARON MATÉ: How often do you come here?

UNIDENTIFIED ADDICT: Probably about three, four times a day, minimum.

MARK TOWNSEND: Insite has taken over one million injections off the streets of Vancouver. It’s also had around $3.5 million of studies. And it concludes that there are some basic things that are obvious. It does reduce the spread of HIV and AIDS, because obviously all the equipment is clean. Addicts that use this place are more likely to go to detox and treatment.

Despite the fact that the provincial or state government here, the police, the local city government all support this, the federal government, even though they don’t fund it, do not support it. They won’t believe the evidence. And they funded all the research, and all the research is relatively positive. They just do not believe it, and they don’t like it, so they have dragged us and a couple of addicts here through court. We’ve won them every single time.

AARON MATÉ: If this place were to close down, how would that impact your life?

UNIDENTIFIED ADDICT: Quite a bit, actually, because, like, I know the staff here. They’re great people. This is a great place. I mean, it’s safe. You can come in here and shoot up, like, and not have to worry about the police come in and, like, arrest you.

MARK TOWNSEND: Well, the immediate fact is like a million injections will be back on the streets and in the alleys and in the hotel rooms. The long-term effect is people will die. Disease will spread. People will be less likely to go to detox and treatment. And it will cost the healthcare service more money.

AARON MATÉ: Although Insite has taken over a million injections off the street, the widespread drug use still seen on corners and in alleyways underscores the severity of the Downtown Eastside drug crisis. It’s easy to feel horrified and judgmental. Those who work here urge compassion.

HARSHA WALIA: I work predominantly with women, and I can say, confidence, that approximately 70 percent of women that I know who turn to drugs turn to drugs because of childhood trauma of sexual assault and of child apprehension. And, you know, addictions are a—they’re a symptom of something. They’re not anything in and of themselves. And there’s reasons why people are addicted, why people are drinking, why people are forced into these desperate situations.

AARON MATÉ: The many problems notwithstanding, what’s also unmistakable here, and voiced by almost anyone you talk to, is a sense of community.

DOROTHY CHRISTIAN: The people look out for each other. You know, I don’t think that that happens much anywhere, you know, in any of the large city urban centers across the world.

GURU NANAK’S FREE KITCHEN: This is the Guru Nanak’s Free Kitchen, that we serve about a thousand meals every Saturday and every Sunday.

AARON MATÉ: After many years of doing this, what’s your sense of the homeless problem right now in Vancouver?

GURU NANAK’S FREE KITCHEN: It’s been increased. We’ve seen new members. We’ve seen new people on the streets. And a lot of the guys may not be homeless, but they can’t afford to feed themselves.

AARON MATÉ: Before the Olympics, a group of media activists established the Vancouver Media Co-op. Co-founder Dawn Palley.

DAWN PALEY: It’s a place for media makers who believe in social justice and who are part of movements or who are in support of movements—environmental justice, migrant justice, and specifically like anti-colonial, anti-capitalist struggles—to come together, to share ideas, to put up pieces, to work together, to support each other in media. We do trainings. People can access machines here. And yeah, we meet once a week, and now that it’s convergence, we’ve been here pretty much 24/7.

WENDY PEDERSEN, Carnegie Community Action Project: We fought for labor rights in this neighborhood. We squatted to get a park. We had to squat to get a—fight to get a community center. And now—and we fought and scratched and scraped for housing. So it’s no surprise that the community spirit to fight for social justice is still alive and well in the Downtown Eastside. And people are waking up, and they’re organizing.

HARSHA WALIA: When women are going missing and when women are being murdered in this neighborhood, the people who find out are not the cops. The people who are looking out for each other are other women in the neighborhood, who are looking out for women’s safety when they’re out working late at night on the streets.

AARON MATÉ: On the morning of the opening ceremonies, just hours before the Games began, the provincial government of British Columbia announced a $10 million cut to programs for at-risk children. That’s just one part. Days after the Olympics closed, the government will come out with its next budget, and many expect that to have major cuts to education, to housing, to healthcare and the arts.

DAVID CADMAN: So we’re faced with a situation where we’ve spent a lot of money, not so much the city, but the national and provincial government, on these Olympics, and yet the plight of poor and homeless people is not going to get better as a consequence to these Olympics. And it’s, in reality, going to get worse.

STELLA AUGUST: It’s The government needs to get their priorities straight and see us on the map here, you know, and recognize us and acknowledge us. Our people here, we’re just as here when—as the rich people. You know, even though we’re not as rich as they are, but we are rich in heart for caring and loving and respecting our people here in our country.

AARON MATÉ: On the Games’ last day, people across Canada celebrated as the men’s national hockey team defeated the United States in the gold medal game. In the Downtown Eastside, there was a different cause for celebration. Less than two weeks after occupying that vacant condo lot, forty-one homeless people living in Tent Village won a promise from the city to be placed in social housing.

LILY LONCAR, DTES Residents Association: Many have been homeless for a long time. And one guy, awesome guy, he hasn’t slept in a bed in eight years, and he’s got a place. He’s got his own apartment. And he’s ecstatic. And we’re all pretty stoked today. None of that would have happened without the Tent Village. There’s just no way. No way. It’s the Tent Village, it’s people fighting in solidarity for their rights that got people housed today and yesterday.

AARON MATÉ: A victory in the shadow of the Olympic flame.

For Democracy Now!, I’m Aaron Maté.

AMY GOODMAN: With special thanks to Democracy Now!’s Nicole Salazar and Hany Massoud, as well as Julius Fisher of Vancouver’s Working TV and the Vancouver Media Co-op.

In these last few minutes, we’re joined by Democracy Now! producer Aaron Maté.

What was it like, Aaron, to go home? Going to Vancouver was actually going home for you.

AARON MATÉ: It was. It’s interesting, Amy. You leave, and you come back, and on the one hand there’s this huge hoopla and people in downtown celebrating. There were zip lines fastened to buildings, and people were literally flying over your head, screaming and hollering, and there’s a lot of sort of celebration.

But one thing, actually, we didn’t get to in this piece was sort of this neo-authoritarian push that came along with these Olympics. There was a censorship put on artists, people who had to—if they took Olympic funding, had to sign contracts vowing not to criticize the Olympic Committee or the Games.

And in one case, one gallery actually had to paint over a mural it had put up of the Olympic symbol with five unhappy faces and one happy face just to depict the artist’s feelings about the Games. You know, one happy face, but mostly unhappy faces. It had to be taken down. That was challenged and then eventually was put back up.

But to come back to this, to this weird struggle, you know, in a North American city, where murals have to be debated based on their feelings about—based on their statements about these Olympic Games, was—it was surreal.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s amazing to think, since we certainly didn’t get it in all the glitz, that Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside is the poorest postal code in all of Canada?

AARON MATÉ: It is, yeah. And what’s striking is that it’s literally just blocks from the main Olympic sites. Really, some of the things that we saw—that department store, where people are lined up down the block just to buy merchandise, it’s about a few blocks away from where the Tent Village was and where residents occupied this vacant condo lot for two weeks. But yeah, the poverty there is striking. It’s visible everywhere.

AMY GOODMAN: And the tent city did have a victory.

AARON MATÉ: It did. It was amazing. This actually was just announced yesterday. This condo lot was a contentious place, and people were quite nervous about it when it was first purchased. It’s seen as a site of gentrification. And so it was taken over, and people brought in tents, over forty tents. There were campfires, people watching around the clock. They demanded housing, and they got it. The city awarded housing to forty-one people. Every single homeless person that was living at tent city that they could account for have now been given a place in social housing.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much for an excellent report, Aaron, and it’s nice to have you back. Aaron Maté, Democracy Now! producer.

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