By Shauna Lewis
Just 19 years old, Nadine McMillan possessed youth and the potential to turn her life around. Today, all that is left of McMillan are the memories her family and friends choose to share with others; memories of a life that ended in violence on the cold dark streets of Vancouver’s notorious lower eastside. Dragged across the Hasting viaduct by her hair, and seen being forced into a vehicle by two unknown males; the young woman’s body was found the next day in a downtown apartment.
Cara Ellis was a bright and attractive woman, with black curly hair and big brown eyes. A good joke-teller and writer, Ellis was said to have kept many journals. Sadly, Ellis will never have the opportunity to write the ending to her life story; allegedly, a pig farmer did it for her.
For Ann-Marie Livingston, her sister Florence was the pride of her life. As children, the two First Nations women simultaneously lived through what no children should have to. Born into a dysfunctional family affected by residential school abuse; Ann-Marie and her sister were repeatedly raped and beaten by priests and male family members. With only each other to lean on for emotional support, Ann-Marie is now forced to find comfort elsewhere, as she decides a final resting place for her sister’s remains.
Told to a small community hall full of people on February 14, these personal stories are just a sample of what has, and will continue to happen to women living on the cold, dark streets of Vancouver’s eastside if issues continue to be overlooked by those in power.
On a day when most people declare their love through gifts of flowers and chocolate, approximately 300 people made their way to the downtown eastside to show their love and support in a different way. Piling into the Carnegie Center’s small meeting area; family, friends and a concerned and supportive public, gathered for a day of respect, remembrance, and recognition for the murdered and missing women of the downtown eastside.
The 14th one of its kind, the annual women’s march provides a public platform for family and friends to find support in each other, while discussing social issues that need changing. With focus placed squarely on the issue of authoritative liability, the word ‘accountability’ was repeated throughout the day.
Maggie Gisle, former drug addict and citizen of the eastside, is a single mother of two and the coordinator of a safety and self-care group for women of the area. She urges Vancouverites to open their eyes to the on-going social marginalization facing citizens of the lower eastside.
“Where is community accountability? Where is the public accountability of providing better healthcare?” Advising the public to stand up to what she calls government sanctioned “band-aid solutions,” Gisle is frustrated with the public’s lack of pro-activity. “Where is the public outcry? If you don’t like what you see down here, then change it,” stated Gisle.
More government and police action needed
The lack of responsibility at the hands of both the government and the Vancouver police department was also of major concern. Ernie Crey, brother of murdered woman Dawn Crey and member of the United Native Nations Society of BC, focused his attention on the detrimental elimination of much-needed resources for those who call the Vancouver streets ‘home.’
Crey approached Doug Kelly, active member of the Chief’s Health Committee and representative of the First Nations Summit, urging him to do whatever he could to force government to address the cries of the lower eastside. In a speech Kelly said that he plans to organize a meeting with federal and provincial officials in departments including Health Canada, BC Ministry of Children and Families and Indian and Northern Affairs Canada.
He stressed the importance of women’s role in society: “It’s only the women that can give life. Women are the first teachers, and because of that powerful obligation and gift from the creator, society-men in particular- have to respect our woman.”
Further thoughts and comments concerning the role of the Vancouver police department, were echoed by Maggie DeVries, sister of Sarah De Vries and author of Missing Sarah, a book that highlights the life and tragic death of a women living in Vancouver’s downtown eastside.
“I’m feeling more and more that the problems… between this community and the Vancouver Police department are at the root of so many of the terrible, terrible problems that exist.” Sadly, DeVries admits that while she has no concrete solution that will fix the issues, she knows that change must occur, “or else women are going to continue to die.”
This is how we live
Following the speeches, a large group of participants took to the streets, forcing passersby to take a closer look at the realities facing Vancouver’s homeless and drug addicted. Adorned in a tradition Northwest coast button blanket and marching with others who pulsated like lifeblood through Vancouver’s arterial streets, ex-prostitute and drug addict Anita Hautk blames the system for laws that fail to address a larger social problem.
“You can’t just illegalize people. Right now homelessness is illegal, how can that be? If homelessness is illegal, then it must be illegal to be evicted, it must be illegal to be refused housing in any area for any reason.”
When asked who these women were – beyond their tragic circumstances – one resident of said: “These women were somebody’s daughter, somebody’s sister, somebody’s aunt, somebody’s mother; these women were all somebody who somebody loved.”
The love that Ernie Crey, and others, possess for their murdered sisters, daughters, mothers and aunts, is one that was/is unconditional. “Sometimes there are things out there that appear at first glance to be stronger than love,” confessed Crey. “But it’s only temporary, because in the end the love we felt, and continue to feel for our sister, is stronger than anything down here on the downtown eastside.”