3 min

City of Vancouver pulls plug on apology for West End sex workers

City’s non-apology at memorial’s launch a ‘betrayal,’ says UBC prof

Vancouver Councillor Andrea Reimer presented an “acknowledgement” and not an apology on Sept 16, 2016, for the city’s role in displacing sex workers from Vancouver’s West End in the 1980s.   Credit: Rosemary Newton/Daily Xtra

The City of Vancouver quietly sidestepped issuing a formal apology for forcing sex workers from the city’s West End, just days before unveiling a monument to honour them, Daily Xtra has learned.

Working with sex worker advocates, the city unveiled a long-awaited memorial — a Victorian lamppost topped with a red light — on Sept 16, 2016, in front of St Paul’s Anglican Church, but an apology was not read.

Unlike police who apologized at the unveiling, the city offered only a “formal acknowledgment” for its displacement of sex workers in the 1980s.

“I thought it was very cowardly,” says Jamie Lee Hamilton, an indigenous sex worker who’s been fighting for a monument and a formal apology for years.

Hamilton says she and other sex worker advocates were expecting an apology from the city and were asked, and had submitted, the first draft of one just a few weeks ago to the mayor’s office.

But the city pulled the plug on an apology and the draft never came back to her, Hamilton says.

Jamie Lee Hamilton speaks at the opening of the memorial to sex workers.
Rosemary Newton/Daily Xtra

A spokesperson for Mayor Gregor Robertson says the decision not to issue an apology was made internally by city staff.

Katie Robb says in 2014 the city committed to reviewing an apology for its 1982 street activities bylaw — which pushed sex workers out of the West End to “secure community safety” — but instead chose to issue a “formal acknowledgment.”

Robb wouldn’t say if the city would apologize in the future. “This is what the city’s decided for now,” she says.

Hamilton says there’s a fine line between an acknowledgment and an apology. “I think an apology moves us towards reconciliation,” she says.

Vancouver police fined and evicted Hamilton and other sex workers from the West End in the mid-1980s, after a group of residents, led by gay former city councillor Gordon Price, raised concerns about safety in the neighbourhood.

The decision was disastrous for workers who would soon become more prone to violence and murder, Hamilton says.

“They were placed into dark industrial areas with no supports. The community was disbanded.”

Hamilton says about 20 sex workers, many of whom were trans friends, were killed after being booted out of the West End.

They include Helen Hallmark, Tracy Olajide, Harlow (last name not known), Danielle Doucette, Kellie Little, Chantel Gillade, and Chrissy Warren.

“I could mention more, but you get the picture,” Hamilton says.

“There’s not many surviving workers left from that time.”

Becki Ross addresses the crowd at the memorial’s launch.
Rosemary Newton/Daily Xtra

Becki Ross, a sociology professor at the University of British Columbia and a co-founder of the West End Sex Workers Memorial Committee, says the mayor’s refusal to offer a public apology is a “betrayal.”

Ross calls it a “squandered opportunity,” and says Robertson missed a chance to stand with indigenous sex workers.

“I think the mayor’s refusal is a measure of the tenacity and stubbornness of whorephobia,” Ross says.

Hamilton says she suspects the mayor’s office pulled the plug on an apology because of pressure from opponents to the monument. 

Hamilton says she voted for Robertson because when he ran for office in 2008, he promised to be open to an apology.

“I kept my promise but the mayor didn’t keep his obviously,” she says.

The inscription at the base of the new memorial.
Rosemary Newton/Daily Xtra

Last week’s monument unveiling has created some controversy in the West End.

Geoff Holter, 67, has lived in the neighbourhood since 1973 and has written to city hall asking council to remove the monument.

“This story is not over,” he says.

Holter says he felt blindsided when the lamppost was unveiled last week and his community was not consulted about it. “It’s like an index finger to everyone who lives there,” he says.

Holter was one of the residents who fought to have sex workers leave the West End in 1982.

He says the neighbourhood was starting to mirror the city’s Downtown Eastside. “It got to the point where a woman couldn’t walk down the street without being propositioned,” Holter says.

“I couldn’t get out of my driveway most nights there was so much bumper to bumper traffic of johns trying to do a pickup.”

“There’d be businessmen on their way downtown stopping their cars and getting a quickie.”

Holter says he’s also frustrated with the notion that West End sex workers in the 1970s helped shape the emergence of Vancouver’s gaybourhood.

“You know before it was the gaybourhood it was a hooker hood,” Hamilton says. “We were a tight-knit community.”

But Holter vehemently denies that sentiment.

“The effort to drive them out of the neighbourhood was led by gay men,” he says.