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Gender + Sexuality

From the Streets to Film, With Her Heart in the Downtown Eastside

Featured in a 2013 Tyee story, Angel Gates left the sex trade to become an actress and activist.

Krystle Alarcon 25 Jan

Krystle Alarcon is a multimedia reporter based in Montreal. She's passionate about giving voice to the voiceless and holding people of power to the fire. She's freelanced for the The Tyee, CBC, National Observer, Yukon News, and ABS-CBN, A Philippine news outlet. Tweet her @krystlealarcon.

Every now and then, Angel Gates allows her three children to take out their frustrations on her. It’s been almost five years since she left prostitution and reconnected with them, but the time apart has taken a toll on their relationship.

It’s an anger she knows well. Gates was turned out by her own mother, who also was a prostitute, at the age of 11.

“I deserve all the anger in the world from my children, I’ve explained it [to them]. I let them have at me,” Gates says. “But I feel like I’ve beaten myself up and I was an angry kid at my mother once too but I can’t constantly hate myself anymore. I have to forgive myself. All I ever wanted was to be was a mom and I f—d it up. And I will live with that for the rest of my life.”

Gates regrets her life in the sex industry because of the effect it had on her children. But she takes pride in the hurdles she overcame to escape the trade.

“When you give your body to so many different people for money, it weighs on your soul,” she says over the phone recently from her apartment in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside neighbourhood.

To leave, several things had to line up for Gates: get rid of her addiction to crack, find a new line of work and affordable housing, and most importantly, develop the willpower to stop walking the streets.

The last came first.

Gates took a hard look at herself after she appeared in a documentary for The Tyee in 2013. The multimedia report portrayed how some advocates say aboriginal women like Gates are funnelled into prostitution. It featured her struggle to exit the industry, while her aunt Bernie Williams, who works for a resolution in the cases of missing and murdered indigenous women, supported her.

Gates, from the Haida Nation, says she still watches the documentary to remind herself of the life she left. “Especially with the jitters that I had, I looked really sick,” she says. “And I was unhappy. I could see it. The more I watched it, the more I was like, what am I doing?”

Shortly after the documentary appeared, she was approved for social housing in an SRO (single-room occupancy suite). It came with a kitchen and bathtub, which to Gates were luxuries. Having a safe place she could afford allowed her to stop spending her earnings on drugs.

She stuck to four “regulars” or clients she had developed over the years, instead of standing on the corner of Hawks and Hastings and potentially getting into a bad date. She says she still dabbled into the black market to support her own addiction and sold speed until she got rid of her habit.

Breaking that habit, she says, came from sheer strength. “The reality is, I woke up one day and I never used crack again,” Gates says.

A year later, she was approved for disability assistance of around $550 a month, just enough to make her rent ($375) and a few utility bills. The benefits were approved due to the mental health issues she suffers from, including childhood abuse in different foster homes and traumatic experiences as a prostitute.

She still has nightmares of some of the things she saw or went through — in her worst date ever, she killed a john to protect herself. She was eventually acquitted as it was considered an act of self defence.

Gates knew she was running on borrowed time. “If I stayed on the corner any longer, I’d end up dead. It’s just the law of averages. I'm not proud of it or anything. But I survived,” she says.

Trisha Baptie, the founder of EVE, an organization that advocates for the abolition of the sex industry, knows the dangers of Downtown Eastside’s streets — having prostituted there for a decade herself. She blames the risks faced by sex workers on the police for taking a hands-off approach.

In 2014, despite the federal government legislating the buying of sex as a criminal offence, the Vancouver Police Department admitted that sex work between consenting adults is not an enforcement priority.

“It’s emboldened Johns to be more aggressive, more assertive, more of them are going to the Downtown Eastside,” Baptie says.

The only agency in Vancouver that helped people out of prostitution shut down in 2011, when the government merged job training services to one-stop centres.

Baptie argues that the concentration of harm reduction programs within the Downtown Eastside keeps women in the trade.

“Women are then trapped down there. Even the physical leaving of the neighbourhood can give women a different perspective on life. It’s like we’re dooming women to constantly be in this Catch 22,” she says.

From prostitution to acting

Journalists and filmmakers interested in a firsthand take on living in the Downtown Eastside or the sex industry contacted Gates after discovering her on The Tyee.

She became a bit of a muse to Wayne Wapeemukwa, a film director and screenwriter. Initially, he talked to Gates as part of research for his short films on the Downtown Eastside. He wanted to ensure he used realistic language — for example, the use of the word “fix” versus “needle.”

Gates convinced him to let her be part of his films. “I said listen, you want a really good actress, you hire a prostitute. That’s all she does her whole life,” she says. Wapeemukwa couldn't resist the offer.

She has since starred or been featured in four of his fictional and hybrid documentary films. She was the lead actress in his short film Luk’Luk’I: Mother, which was about a sex worker going missing in the Downtown Eastside during the 2010 Winter Olympics. Gates helped write her part, which Wapeemukwa intended so that the film was as realistic as possible.

“I think that I have a duty as a filmmaker to ground my stories in truth, so, in order to treat the realities of prejudice my cast faces on a daily basis I think that I have a responsibility to treat these realities as honestly as possible,” he says in an email interview from London in the U.K., where he is now based. To bring out the raw truth of living in poverty, the actors in his films are all residents within the neighbourhood and collaborate in writing the scripts for their own roles.

In his second film with Gates, Balmoral Hotel, she performed an emotional, experimental dance along Hastings Street. It served as an eerie metaphor of her life in the industry and earned her a nomination for best actress at the 2016 Leo Awards.

But it wasn’t an easy performance for Gates. The Balmoral Hotel reminded her of where she was first forced into prostitution. The choreographer, Yvonne Chartrand, had to teach Gates breathing exercises to help her get through the dance. The technique has since helped Gates sort through her traumas when public speaking or acting.

In his third film with Gates, Srorrim, the title of which is the inverse of the word “mirrors,” Wapeemukwa interviews Gates and two other Downtown Eastside residents about their hearts’ deepest desires. Gates’s dream is to reunite with her youngest daughter. Wapeemukwa said he had to make Gates and her daughter appear to be in the same shot through editing the footage, because the girl’s father did not allow Gates to see her in person.

Most recently, Gates debuted in Wapeemukwa’s feature film, which is an extended version of their first film together by the same name. The longer version, Luk Luk’I, made it to the top 10 list of the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival and won one of the best Canadian first feature awards. Named after the Coast Salish term for the Downtown Eastside, the film portrays an unsettling perspective of the 2010 Winter Olympics as five marginalized residents dealt with the not-so-glamorous side of the Games.

Gates credits her participation in movies as her way out of prostitution. “The film I did [with The Tyee] made me look at myself. And meeting him [Wapeemukwa] and doing films gave me a passion, gave me a dream. I know I'm not going to get rich and famous. At least it's something to look forward to that I never had before. It's a big dream but it's my dream.”

She finds humour in her new journey into an acting career.

“I'm 41 next month. I'm not sure what else I can do. This acting thing has to take off soon because my shelf life is almost up,” she says with a chuckle.

Gates is also featured in an upcoming film, directed by Kim O’Bomsawin, about missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada.

Her Hastings family

Bernie Williams is proud of Gates’s accomplishments since quitting prostitution. She adopted her into her clan, the St `Langng Laanas and gave her a Haida name, Gyuu Tsi`iga Jaad, which means “headstrong woman,” or as Gates specifies, “strong in the mind.”

She admits her roles or participation in the media retraumatize her by having to talk about the most harrowing moments of her life. But Gates purposefully does so to make change.

“They’re always parts that I find important and that I think will help people to keep talking about the Downtown Eastside. People forget that working girls are still going missing. Every single day, we’re averaging two to three people dying from this opioid crisis. I still live here. My life matters. Everybody's life down here is precious.”

Gates says she’s lost 55 friends and neighbours to fentanyl, including her best friend and father of her firstborn and a foster home sister. That toll among her peers is not unusual.

“Fentanyl was never a choice down here,” Gates says. “It was forced on our people. Because they're putting it in there and people are getting wired to this drug which we didn't even know was in the heroin to start.”

Like other Downtown Eastside residents, she looks forward to the day the government approves more harm reduction programs like SALOME, a clinical trial that allowed people to inject medically prescribed heroin under the supervision of physicians, nurses and social workers.

Treated patients received help in finding employment and housing. The program proved that participants took much less to street heroin and other opioids, while committing significantly fewer crimes.

According to the BC Coroners Service, overdose deaths in the province have increased by 136 per cent last year, where fentanyl was detected in over 80 per cent of cases. From January to October 2017, almost a thousand people died from a fentanyl overdose, a huge jump from 423 deaths in the same period the year before.

Despite the government declaring a public health emergency in 2016, Gates says not enough is being done. She’s taken to social media to raise awareness about the issue creating posts under the banner “DTES Lives Matter” with her YouTube channel and Facebook group.

Gates says she films her friends and neighbours just doing regular things to get people to see them with a sense of humanity.

“Despite all of the tragedy and the pain, we still manage to wake up in the morning. And that’s a victory in itself. And we manage to laugh and smile through and soldier on.”

Luk Luk’I will be screening at the Woodward’s Campus of Simon Fraser University Jan. 25 to raise funds for the Portland Hotel Society.  [Tyee]

Read more: Gender + Sexuality, Film

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