By Morgan O’Neal
From her balcony at the Vancouver Native housing complex directly across the street from the International Village Mall, Tamara Chipman’s aunt, Gladys Radek, a Vancouver -based Carrier grandmother with one leg, had a perfect view of Tinseltown. While she sat on her deck doing beadwork, Radek observed the goings on at the mall and she began to notice some disturbing trends. She witnessed several incidents of security guard intimidation and outright harassment of Native patrons. The mall had opened its doors in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside in December 1999. Its owners, Henderson Development Ltd, had envisioned a high-end fashion and entertainment complex serving a clientele with disposable income. But the low-income residents from the neighborhood also visited the mall to purchase cups of coffee, groceries and fast food. The locals were not welcome, however.
On May 10, 2001, Radek and a friend discovered for themselves just how fanatically discriminatory the Security regime at Tinseltown could be. They were on their way to have a coffee at Starbucks when the two of them were accosted, verbally harassed, and physically evicted from the premises by a uniformed mall cop. Insulted and humiliated, Radek demanded to see the policy that allowed the guards to evict her. They didn’t show it, and Radek called police on her cell phone. The police sided with Security. Radek took her case to the British Columbia Human Rights Commision. She complained that Mall Security’s actions “offended her dignity as an Aboriginal woman”.
She alleged that the discrimination she suffered was part of a larger pattern of systemic discrimination practiced by security guards on behalf of Tinseltown /International Village Shopping Mall against Aboriginal and disabled people. Radek who was 49 years old when the incidents took place, testified she was treated as an undesirable person because of her looks – that she was, simply, Aboriginal. Other people testified about similar experiences. Indeed, in the 209 page decision that was later published, Human Rights Tribunal member Lindsay M. Lyster reprinted some elements of the Mall’s horrifying policy for evicting people. It required security workers to remove people with ‘ripped clothing,’ ‘dirty clothing,’ ‘attitudes when approached,’ ‘talking to themselves,’ ‘open sores,’ ‘red eyes,’ and ‘having bad body odour,’ among other things. The decision cited one security report where the reason for eviction was ‘missing teeth/native male unco-operative.’
Four years after her disgusting mistreatment, Radek won a favorable decision from the BC Human Rights Tribunal. A 13 day hearing took place in 2004, and the decision was made on July 13, 2005. The Tribunal ordered International Village to replace policy, which still allowed evictions of ‘suspicious’ people, with a policy that would focus instead on how people act, rather than how they look. Seventeen people, besides Radek, testified at the hearing about discrimination at the mall. As Radek told Turtle Island Native Network following the decision, “I am very proud of this decision on behalf of our people. I feel that we all deserve to be treated with honor and dignity, no matter where we walk in this beautiful country”.
After reviewing the sorry history of the mall in question, the numerous instances of racist behavior against Aboriginals there, the Tribunal agreed that the Mall had discriminated against Ms. Radek. The Tribunal spokesperson did not mince words: “I have found the complaint to be justified. I found that Henderson and Securiguard discriminated against Ms. Radek, both on May 10, 2001 and on a number of earlier occasions. I also found that both respondents engaged in systemic discrimination on the basis of race, colour, ancestry and disability, throughout the period of this complaint.”
According to the decision, “To be singled out for treatment of the kind described in this decision, because of one’s race or disability or a combination of those factors, constitutes a clear violation of the human dignity of all those so affected. The opportunity to walk into a shopping mall and buy a cup of coffee, go for an inexpensive meal, use a bank machine, or simply pass through on the way to public transportation, is one which the majority of Canadians take for granted. The practices of the respondents had the effect of systematically denying the Aboriginal and disabled people of the Downtown Eastside that opportunity. It made them strangers in their own community.” (BC Human Rights Tribunal)
Because of the severe emotional impact the discrimination had on her, the Tribunal awarded Gladys Radek $15,000.00, “in compensation for injury to her dignity, feelings, and self-respect”. Henderson and Securiguard also had to pay interest on the compensation, as well as the costs for the Human Rights hearings. Also, Henderson was ordered to make policy changes at the mall to remedy the situation. “Henderson is to ensure that the site post orders, or other directions with respect to access to and appropriate behavior within International Village, in place for any security service provider it retains are non-discriminatory. In particular, they must be clear that persons entering or seeking to enter the mall are not to be discriminated against on the basis of any ground prohibited in the Code . . . Henderson must require that all security personnel employed by any security service provider at the International Village, including any on-site supervisors or managers, as well as any Henderson management responsible for day-to-day operations at the mall, receive appropriate anti-discrimination training, such training to include both anti-racism and disability awareness components.”
When Radek was originally barred from the International Village (Tinseltown) for life for protesting this racist policy against Aboriginal people and people of color, she never imagined that they would one day be held accountable for their actions. For once the system worked. A very persistent Aboriginal woman, Gladys Radek, took International Village to the Human Rights Commission for discriminating against herself and other Aboriginal and disabled people, and she won. The $15,000 award was the highest ever awarded in BC for injury to dignity.
As well, International Village hasdto stop discriminating on the basis of race, colour, ancestry and disability against people who enter their premises, and had to provide anti-discrimination training to all security workers. International Village must also ensure that anyone wanting a copy of the Human Rights Commission decision can get one, and must make sure that all employees are aware that there is a public right of way through the International Village Mall. This was a major victory for under-privileged and marginalized people in general. But Radek would not be able to celebrate her victory for long.
Just two months after Gladys Radek won her landmark case against the Mall, her niece, Tamara Chipman, went missing on the Highway of Tears in northern British Columbia. She has spent every waking hour since trying to keep Tamara’s memory alive. She has traveled widely and at every possible opportunity reminded those to whom she speaks of the tragedy of the young women murdered and missing along that infamous highway. As a member of various Native activist organizations she has used her influence to keep the spirit of those still missing alive and the issue of systemic violence against Aboriginal women in the forefront.
Radek is a governing member of the Board of the Highway of Tears Symposium, having contributed to the recommendations that resulted from that effort in 2006. She is also an alternate director (Zone 7) with the United Native Nations and on the Board of the Downtown Eastside Women’s Center. She is a member of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, whose ‘Sisters in Spirit’ project focuses on the issue of violence against Aboriginal women at a federal level. She is also involved in the Spirits Rising Memorial Project the mandate of which is to construct Totem Poles in honour of those women who have been murdered or have gone missing both in Vancouver and in Northern British Columbia.