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Rights + Justice

‘I See My Sisters Hurting Down Here All the Time’: Indigenous Women in the Downtown Eastside Speak Out

New report gives Indigenous women a voice and produces 200 ideas to make their lives better.

Katie Hyslop 3 Apr

Katie Hyslop is a reporter for The Tyee. Reach her here.

There are literally hundreds of studies, reports and articles on the Downtown Eastside, Vancouver’s oldest neighbourhood and Canada’s “poorest postal code.”

Residents have spent decades welcoming researchers, educators and journalists into their community to mine their lives for stories about drug use, poverty, homelessness and deplorable housing, violence, sex work and gentrification.

Few of those studies, however, are produced by people living in the community. Far fewer focus on women, who make up roughly 40 per cent of the 18,000 people who live in the Downtown Eastside. And even fewer focus on Indigenous women

But Indigenous women face huge challenges. They’re more likely to be homeless or poor than non-Indigenous women. They’re at greater risk of going missing or being murdered, more likely to have their children apprehended and experience poor health or early death.

The Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre wanted to change life for their members (over 70 per cent of whom are Indigenous women). And the way that studies on their communities are done.

The result is the “Red Women Rising: Indigenous Women Survivors in the Downtown Eastside” report released today. It was drafted with three basic principles:

  1. Fully implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is the only way to stop the violence inflicted on Indigenous women;
  2. Any comprehensive plan to end this violence must include self-determination over and equitable access to land, income, childcare, housing, language, health care and other areas;
  3. Indigenous women aren’t victims, but community leaders, a diverse group of people who must be included in all decisions that affect them.

It’s the last principle that makes this report stand out. Nothing was written about Indigenous women without their input.

Unlike previous reports on the neighbourhood, or Indigenous women in general, Red Women Rising was a collaborative effort between researchers Harsha Walia and Carol Muree Martin, and 113 Indigenous women in the Downtown Eastside (referred to as the DTES throughout the report), and facilitated by the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre.

The extensive report tracks Indigenous women’s oppression in one Vancouver neighbourhood back to the impacts of colonization that began over 200 years ago.

Red Women Rising includes 200 recommendations for change, including 35 key proposals, such as removing sexist policies in the Indian Act; ending police street checks and the apprehension of Indigenous children; providing safe, adequate housing for all Indigenous women on and off-reserve; and implementing a lifelong guaranteed income for residential school survivors and an Indigenous reparations tax.

Yes, the report has plenty of grim statistics gleaned from previous studies on the neighbourhood and Indigenous women in Canada as a whole. But it’s the 25 women’s stories in the report, in their own words, under their own names, that make those numbers come alive.

As the report highlights, displacement is the reason most of the women live in the Downtown Eastside, or off-reserve at all, whether it was the displacement of their nation from its lands by a colonizing government; the loss of their Indigenous rights through marriage or motherhood; escaping abuse at home; or because poverty, homelessness, and poor living conditions on underfunded reserves drove them to seek a better life in the city.

Life in the Downtown Eastside is hard, and as the women in the report say themselves, it is getting harder all the time. But if you think the solution is to just move Indigenous women somewhere else, you’re not listening to them. You are robbing them of their agency, they write.

“The hidden truth of the DTES is that despite the poverty, criminalization, and trauma, we all care for each other and socialize with one another,” Stella August of the Nuu-chah-nulth Nation, who has lived in the neighbourhood for five decades, says in the report.

“Especially in the DTES Power of Women Group, where we are like one family and support the community on issues such as police brutality, child apprehensions, violence against women, and housing. Whether people are sober or high on drugs, we listen to each other’s truths and dreams.”

Below is a list of quotes from the Red Women Rising report on the realities of being an Indigenous woman, not just in the Downtown Eastside, but also across Canada.


Beatrice Starr: The whole system of child apprehension is grossly unfair and unjust. From my experience and those of other women I know, it seems that the ministry is interested in keeping children in the foster system rather than returning them to their parents. Most of the children in [the children ministry’s] custody are Native children. I believe this is both a continuation of the residential school experience — where children were torn away from their families and communities — as well as a consequence itself of residential schools that forced Native families into social dysfunction with rampant alcohol and drug use and abuse in the home. I feel like the odds are stacked against us, but still we continue on.

Larissa Healey: When you sober up the racism is unbelievable, and then you wish you hadn’t sobered up! Especially being two-spirit, I get asked a lot “Are you a guy or a girl?” And then being Native on top of that. I get comments and followed around everywhere — BC Hydro office, bank, grocery stores, shopping. Health clinics just want to slot you into a category, especially because I am on disability assistance. I had to go out of town to see a decent counsellor. People see an Indigenous woman and they automatically create stereotypes and judgments. People won’t sit next to you on the bus and won’t look at you.

Theresa Dolores Gray: I believe that most racist people in Canada are so hateful against Native people so they don’t have to feel guilty or responsible for the amount of injustices against us by White Canadian supremacist society. My day-to-day experiences of violence are felt on my body and on the land and parks I walk on. Native people need to have control over our own land. On the west coast, we used to have good living. We had three months of potlatching and we prepared well for the winter with hunting, fishing, and berry picking. We need to end the poverty of Indigenous women. I feel everybody in Canada deserves a home; there is plenty of land.

Health and wellbeing

Kayla Fox: I work at the women’s overdose prevention site. We have the lowest overdose rate. It’s good to have peer-based work, but also it’s so triggering and traumatizing to have a peer-run place. We need more safe places for women to use drugs and we also need more resources for healing from trauma. We need to deal with immediate addictions, and we also need to deal with root causes. Too much money is going into band-aid solutions and everything is a crisis, but we need to stop the crisis at the root. We need to deal with the childhood trauma. The sadness here is overwhelming.

Sophie Merasty: One of our biggest needs is a safe space that is run by and for Indigenous women. Spaces for women to come together and be heard and believed, like a centre that is open to all First Nations women and open 24/7. We need access to healing supports, victim services and counselling regularly and more easily. We shouldn’t have to suffer major trauma before being able to access counselling and mental health supports. We also need Indigenous women’s detox. We need stronger advocates who believe Indigenous women and their stories, whether or not we are using drugs. Just because we are poor Native women doesn’t mean we should accept lower standards of treatment. I won’t accept this and refuse to be victimized!


Debra Leo: The government should make it easier to get on welfare and raise the welfare rates so women do not have to work the streets to survive. It’s so hard to survive on welfare. Welfare is so low that you have to work to supplement welfare, and it’s often different kinds of dangerous work. We need to increase welfare and make it easier to get on disability assistance so we have more money to live.

Our society should also make it easier for people who live in the DTES to work, because no one is willing to hire people who have the DTES as their address or who have no address at all. I got my first job recently as an outreach worker at WISH. I talk to girls on the street and help them get connected to resources. This job helps me get money and not be back on the street. We need more resources like PACE to exit if and when we want and are ready. We need employment resources, finding alternative income sources, how to eat healthy, finding good health care and dentists.

Finally, I think people should have more understanding and compassion towards us. We should not be judged for who we are or what we do for trying to support ourselves when no one else even seems to care whether we live or die.

Chilli: I have been a sex trade worker for 25 years. We don’t choose to do drugs or sex work; there is something hurting inside us. I don’t think anyone should have to choose this life. But I also think sex work should be legalized. There is already so much damage from the laws. I’m on the board of Sex Workers United Against Violence, and we want to have sex work legalized. Sex work is not a choice for most street level Native women on the street, and so if we do have to work it should at least be safe and legal, and also we need more options to not have to work the street and not to live in poverty


Mary Speck: Things have really changed in Vancouver and the DTES... There is so much more poverty. And it’s more violent now. I am scared to walk down my own block. There are people chasing each other. The lateral violence also really triggers me. All the yelling and screaming all day long. People don’t recognize each other on the street anymore. Everyone is stressed right out, especially before welfare cheque day, and desperate to make money however they can.

Suzanne Kilroy: I see my sisters hurting down here all the time. When will we able to walk the street and feel safe? I am here to hold hands with all my sisters and to raise our voices together. I don’t say I am a survivor. I say I am a “live-r.” I live for all my sisters who died and I stand up for all the women who can’t stand up for themselves. The DTES is our family, our people, our reserve. I am never going to be quiet. I am never going anywhere. We, the First Nations women in the DTES, will always stand up for what we believe in and for our sisters and the memories of the sisters we have lost. When I die, I know my sisters will stand in my memory.


CD: The poverty is getting worse down here. Everyone is trying to survive. The street vendors are trying to sell their stuff, but the police will bother them and the city workers toss out their livelihoods. If you try and stop the city workers or the police, you will get arrested. A lot of vendors do the drugs they do in order to stay awake and watch their stuff. I have gotten so many vending tickets. If you vend something with a price tag that you got from a place where it was donated, the cops assume it’s shoplifted and ask you for a receipt. If you say you don’t have a receipt, they will confiscate the item.

Sandra: There are so many things we experience that most people who aren’t poor don’t think about. Once the cops fined me for public urination. I threw the ticket out and the cop told me he would give me another fine for littering. It’s so ridiculous! It’s not my fault there are no public bathrooms and we have to pee in the alleys.

Chilli: I don’t see many First Nations police officers, and definitely no First Nations women police officers.

Housing and homelessness

Pearl Baptiste: I see even more younger and younger homeless women and girls on the streets these days. We should be able to have our own housing and not be dependent on men for housing. Women should be on the lease and women should get their own apartment, whether or not they are with a partner. Welfare claws your money back when women are in shared housing with a partner, and that’s not right because it decreases women’s financial independence. We also need housing that is family housing so women don’t lose their kids to [the ministry]. And it’s impossible to stay sober or to clean up without stable and safe housing. When you sleep on the streets, you end up doing more drugs not only because of the stress but also to stay warm and to kill the hunger pains. Housing is so foundational to what we need to stabilize our lives.

Priscillia Tait: When I would call private rentals that were advertising in the newspaper, they would ask me if I was Aboriginal. When I answered, “Yes, I am Aboriginal,” they would refuse to consider me as a tenant. One landlord told me that their last tenant was Native and partied too much and so he would not rent to me. This is a clear case of discrimination and racism. The private housing market is never going to work for Indigenous women and we need social housing.  [Tyee]

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