Every year on February 14, the Downtown Eastside community comes together in solidarity to mourn and honour the lives of women and gender-diverse folks who are missing or have been murdered. The march originated in response to widespread outrage over the murder of a woman on Powell St. in 1992.
Since then the Women’s Memorial March has become an annual tradition, dedicated to seeking justice for ongoing violence against women.
The event itself is organized primarily by Indigenous women. It consists of spiritual ceremonies, speeches from the family members of missing and murdered women, and a walk through the Downtown Eastside at key locations “where women were last seen or found.”
Through the efforts of grassroots organizers, the march has increased public attention towards the crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG), prompting similar marches to take place in over twenty cities across the United States and Canada.
Despite the increased visibility of the march’s calls for justice, few concrete steps have been taken at the municipal level to effectively address violence toward Indigenous women.
The intersections between municipal issues in the DTES and MMIWG
The root causes of the MMIWG crisis lie within systems of gendered and racialized inequality.
The Red Women Rising Report by the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre highlighted various concerns raised by Indigenous women survivors that have routinely been overlooked within municipal politics, particularly, the issue of community safety.
According to the report, since “incidents of violence in the neighbourhood are double the rates of the rest of the city”, many Indigenous women in the Downtown Eastside have reported feeling unsafe in public spaces.
The numerous safety-related concerns can broadly be categorized as three municipal shortcomings that increase the likelihood of experiencing violence: homelessness, abuse by law enforcement, and a lack of community support services.
A community safety audit titled "Getting to the Roots: Exploring Systemic Violence Against Women in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver" conducted by a cluster of local anti-violence organizations found that, “violence is closely linked to homelessness and precarious housing for women in the DTES."
Women experiencing violence may perceive homelessness as a safer alternative to living with an abusive partner and flee their homes. However, this violence often continues, with women being forced to navigate newfound forms of abuse in the streets, SROs, social housing, co-ed facilities, and shelters.
Data from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives echoes this finding, revealing that “91% of homeless women in Canada have experienced assault in their lifetime." Nevertheless, the apparent overlap between homelessness and gender-based violence has yet to be acknowledged at a policy level.
Contemporary policies are fragmented and have not served the best interests of unhoused women experiencing violence.
2. Law Enforcement
Harmful policing practices have played a fundamental role in the worsening crisis of MMIWG. Despite the establishment of a National Inquiry Into MMIWG, police have not only failed to fulfill their investigative obligations and hold perpetrators of violence accountable, but have routinely been instigators of violence themselves.
Based on this severe misconduct and abuse of power, many women have reported a sense of distrust in the police, with a mere “15 percent of 157 women [in the Downtown Eastside saying] they would go to the police if they felt unsafe," according to that same community audit.
3. Community Support Services
The lack of safe spaces for Indigenous Women in the Downtown Eastside has frequently been cited as a major contributor to the high levels of violence they experience. Without a single drop-in-center run for and by Indigenous women, many Downtown Eastside residents are unable to access support that aligns with their lived experiences.
These pre-existing barriers Indigenous women face have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Myrna Cranmer, co-organizer of the Women’s Memorial March, estimates that at least “50 women from the neighbourhood have died since March 2020 under violent circumstances or from COVID-19."
The limited capacities of many support services have restricted access to essential safety resources, preventing Indigenous women from being able to safely flee from abusers.
Beyond the Politics of Inaction
Although extensive evidence reveals the need for improved gender-based safety measures in the Downtown Eastside, we have yet to see any tangible plans for effectively implementing these measures. This inaction severely jeopardizes the safety of Indigenous women, who have the right to live in a city free from violence.
The crisis of MMIWG is deeply connected to municipal issues impacting the Downtown Eastside and needs to be treated as such for genuine change to occur.
To challenge the culture of gendered violence the recommendations outlined by the Red Women Rising Report must be strategically implemented.
Given that these recommendations have been proposed by Indigenous women themselves, policymakers have direct access to the concrete steps they can take to make Vancouver a more livable city for all women.
Fill out our community survey to let us know what other key issues our soon-to-be newly elected officials can tackle in order to make Vancouver work for all equity-seeking genders.
This article was written by HPPC volunteer, Alexa Traboulay.
Conn, Heather. “Women's Memorial March.” The Canadian Encyclopedia, 7 Oct. 2020, https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/women-s-memorial-march.
Dickson, Courtney. “Annual March Commemorates Missing, Murdered Women for 30th Year .” CBCnews, CBC/Radio Canada, 15 Feb. 2021, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/womens-memorial-march-vancouver-downtown-eastside-2021-1.5914140.
“Feb 14th Annual Womens Memorial March.” Women's Memorial March, https://womensmemorialmarch.wordpress.com/2022/01/.
“Getting to the Roots: Exploring Systemic Violence Against Women in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver.” Downtown Eastside Women's Centre, Nov. 2014, https://dewc.ca/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/Getting-to-the-Roots-final-Nov-2-2014.pdf.
Martin, Carol Muree, and Harsha Walia. “Red Women Rising: Indigenous Women Survivors in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.” Downtown Eastside Women's Centre, 2019, https://dewc.ca/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/MMIW-Report-Final-March-10-WEB.pdf.
Timmons, Vianne, et al. “Gender-Based Violence and Homelessness: Two Sides of the Same Coin.” Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy - Graduate School of Public Policy, Nov. 2018, https://www.schoolofpublicpolicy.sk.ca/.
McInnes, Sadie. “Fast Facts: 4 Things to Know about Women and Homelessness in Canada.” Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, 26 Aug. 2016, https://policyalternatives.ca/publications/commentary/fast-facts-4-things-know-about-women-and-homelessness-canada.