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Remembering a Downtown Eastside Warrior

Angel Gates was a powerful actress and advocate who lifted up her community.

Jen St. Denis 8 Sep 2022TheTyee.ca

Jen St. Denis is The Tyee’s Downtown Eastside reporter. Find her on Twitter @JenStDen.

The last time Wayne Wapeemukwa talked to Angel Gates, she was reminiscing about the film they made together in 2014. And she was looking forward to making another film with Wapeemukwa.

Balmoral Hotel features Gates dancing along East Hastings Street, telling her life story through choreography that telegraphs anguish, despair, hope and power. As dusk falls and the film comes to a close, Gates walks into the Balmoral Hotel — a touchstone of both belonging and abuse for Gates and many other women in the Downtown Eastside — and orders a beer. It’s a brilliant and heartbreaking performance.

“She was one of the most powerful people I've ever met in my life,” Wapeemukwa told The Tyee.

“I mean that in every way. I don't mean that just physically, I mean emotionally and spiritually. You can see that from the way that she advocated for the community throughout her entire life.”

Gates died suddenly on Labour Day weekend. Her death has sent shockwaves through the Downtown Eastside community. But her influence had travelled far beyond her own neighbourhood. Gates lived out loud, telling her own story to push for change and to help outsiders understand intergenerational trauma, drug use, sex work and housing insecurity.

The last time Bernie Williams talked to Angel, she was excited about taking Bernie’s six-year-old grandson to the PNE. They talked about the food sovereignty program Williams runs, feeding people in need in the neighbourhood.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was in Vancouver this week, along with an entourage of federal ministers. Williams had meetings with federal officials on Tuesday to talk about housing needs in the Downtown Eastside. Gates was supposed to have come with her, Williams said. Instead, she went to the meeting alone, after identifying Angel’s body.

“I’m just wanting the people to know that she sincerely truly loved them and fought for the betterment of the people in the community — whether it's to have housing, whether it's to help with the mental health issues,” said Williams. Williams was Gates’s cousin but says Gates thought of her more like an aunt.

Williams and Gates are from the Haida Nation. Gates had been given the traditional name of Gyuu Tsi'iga Jaad, or Head Strong Woman.

“To me, this is what a true warrior looks like,” Williams said. “She was willing to risk everything for these people.”

Gates’s former neighbour, Karen Ward, shared a few of her favourite memories about Angel, including that she named her dog Cupcake. At karaoke, she insisted on singing the nine-minute Meatloaf song “Paradise by the Dashboard Light.” She would make dinner on Christmas Day and stuff the turkey with bacon (here’s the recipe).

“It was ridiculous,” Ward said. “She’d win, if there was a prize.”

‘She deserved everything that was good in life’

In 2013, Gates told her story to journalists Krystle Alarcon and Sam Eifling for a video documentary produced for The Tyee. In the documentary, Gates talks frankly about the risks of sex work and her reliance on crack cocaine, but also takes the filmmakers on a journey through her neighbourhood, the Downtown Eastside.

Outside the Balmoral Hotel — the city’s most notorious single-room occupancy hotel — Angel tells how she “turned my very first trick when I was 11” at the hotel. It’s also the place where her mother was murdered.

In the documentary, Angel gets evicted from her apartment when she can’t come up with the $600 she needs for rent — but months later, she gets a spot at Woodwards, a new supportive housing building. Angel would later say that watching the documentary showed her how badly she needed to get out of the sex trade.

Wapeemukwa saw the Tyee documentary and got in touch with Angel because he wanted to do some advocacy work in the community, including making a film.

But Gates didn’t want to just help Wapeemukwa with making sure the film was accurate: she insisted he cast her as an actress. Over the years, Wapeemukwa made three films with Gates: Balmoral Hotel, Luk’Luk’I and Srorrim.

“If I wanted to tell a story about the community, I needed to include people in it and put their stories and identities first,” Wapeemukwa said. “And she was the first to volunteer and was really the locomotive behind the entire slate of projects that I did down there. She was at the centre of everything.”

Angel’s performances in Wapeemukwa’s films led to two nominations for the Leo Awards, which celebrate B.C.’s film and TV industry, and international travel to a film festival in Edinburgh and a red carpet event in Los Cabos. In recent months, she had been talking with Wapeemukwa about making her own film about the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on people who use drugs in the Downtown Eastside.

For Wapeemukwa, the artistic collaboration with Gates was life-changing.

“She instilled a confidence in me with respect to my Indigenous identity,” said Wapeemukwa.

“I was very much raised in a racist and colonial household where my dad's white trash and my mom's Indigenous. And I was raised to reflect on my identity with condemnation and hatred.

“She was an essential person in my life who showed me that you didn't need to think that way about yourself. And you could be proud of where you come from.”

For Williams, who was close with Gates’s mom and never gave up on Angel through her struggles with drug use and sex work, it was amazing to see her excel at acting and get recognition for her talent.

“She sparkled,” Williams remembered. “She deserved everything that was good in life.”

But even though Angel projected a supersized amount of confidence, Williams knows she continued to struggle with self-doubt and the fear of not being good enough.

“That’s what I want to reiterate,” Williams said. “She was good enough.”

In the last years of her life, Gates continued to advocate for her community. In a widely-shared clip from a CBC town hall in 2019, she talks about losing 75 friends and acquaintances to toxic drugs and the pressing need to fund overdose prevention sites to stay open 24 hours a day. She was open about her own ongoing drug use.

“I deserve to live,” she said. “I’m a good person.”

In her last Facebook Live on Sept. 1, Angel spoke about the people she’s lost over the years.

“I think of all those soldiers who went before us, who paved the way for safe supply, for decriminalization,” she said.

“I think of… all the kind of old-school people who have passed on. The toughest of the tough. All these people who I thought would never die, 'cause they were so tough. How they kind of died for us, for us to do this stuff.

“I don’t want their deaths to be in vain.”

Williams takes comfort in the smudging ceremony Elder Rita Blind did in Gates’s apartment to release her spirit, and the support and memories that have been pouring in from the wider community.

“I’m just really proud I had her in my life for as long as I did,” Williams said.  [Tyee]

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