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The American Indian Quarterly 27.3 (2003) 593-606

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Their Spirits Live within Us

Aboriginal Women in Downtown Eastside Vancouver Emerging into Visibility

We are aboriginal women. Givers of life. We are mothers, sisters, daughters, aunties and grandmothers. Not just prostitutes and drug addicts. Not welfare cheats. We stand on our mother earth and we demand respect. We are not there to be beaten, abused, murdered, ignored.
From a flyer distributed at Downtown Eastside Women's Memorial March, February 14, 2001, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

Anyone passing through inner-city Vancouver on foot, on a bus, or in a car cannot help but SEE, in a literal sense, the concentration of Aboriginal people here. For most urban Canadians, and visitors from elsewhere, this is an unusual and often surprising visual experience on which they feel compelled to remark. Even so, many representations of this and other inner-city neighborhoods in Western Canada are characterized by a marked invisibility of Aboriginal people, and women in particular.1 This essay describes both the construction of this invisibility in public culture, and an event that symbolizes Aboriginal women's active resistance to these acts of erasure.

Academic, professional, public, and popular discourses deploy a plethora of identifying labels and categorizations that obscure and depoliticize the embodied nature of colonialism that evidences itself in inner-city Vancouver, Canada. The annual Valentine's Day Women's Memorial March gives political expression to a complex process through which Aboriginal women here are struggling to change the language, metaphors, and images through which they come to be (re)known as [End Page 593] they emerge into public visibility. The demand for recognition and respect articulated in the flyer quoted from above encompasses a critique and redefinition of dominant representations of Aboriginal women that are deeply embedded in Canadian colonial history and culture, as well as a claim for inclusion in the larger Aboriginal struggle for rights in place and to health, dignity, and justice.

The intersection of Main and Hastings streets—known locally as "Pain and Wastings"—marks the heart of Vancouver's inner-city neighborhood: the Downtown Eastside. Since 1997, when the City of Vancouver Health Department declared a public health emergency in response to reports that hiv infection rates among residents exceeded those anywhere else in the "developed" world, Downtown Eastside Vancouver has become a focal point in emerging local, national, and international debates about the causes of, and solutions to, widespread practices of intravenous injection of illicit drugs and the spread of HIV/AIDS. Public health and law enforcement authorities, in an effort to respond to these "twin epidemics" have treated the Downtown Eastside as a containment zone, rather than as an enforcement zone: few if any arrests are made for simple possession or trafficking of small quantities of illegal drugs, or for soliciting for the purposes of prostitution.2 An open, publicly visible street market in illicit drugs and commercial sex has mushroomed.

Predictably, national and international media as well as a surfeit of both well-intentioned and/or brashly self-promoting artists, writers, and researchers have been drawn as moths to flames to document, analyze, represent, treat, and market the dramatic and photogenic spectacle of social suffering in this neighborhood. A favorite focus of the cameras and interviewers is the southwest corner of Main and Hastings streets: the entranceway to the Carnegie Community Centre. Television and video crews offer the virtual voyeur disturbing—or titillating—images of emaciated heroin, crack cocaine, and prescription drug users buying, selling, injecting, and smoking. Young women hurry back and forth between this corner and others, in and out of alleyways, cars, and parking lots. The money women make selling sexual services passes quickly through their fingers from "Johns" to drug dealers.

On one day of the year, though, for at least a few hours, the scene at Main and Hastings is dramatically altered. In 1991, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal women's organizations in inner-city Vancouver declared February 14 a day of remembrance to honor neighborhood women who...


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