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Community mourns sudden death of hero Jim Deva

Little Sister’s co-owner fought for our stories and nurtured our growth

The inimitable Jim Deva (left, with Councilor Tim Stevenson) was full of life at Xtra’s town hall Sept 9, as he encouraged attendees to be sexually honest with each other and society.  Credit: James Loewen

A shell-shocked gathering of friends, co-workers, activists and authors congregated at Little Sister’s bookstore to console each other and reminisce as they tried to make sense of the sudden death of Jim Deva, whom they hailed as a hero, mentor and a model of courage who inspired a community.

Deva had been trimming tree branches at his Haro Street home when he fell from a ladder to his death Sept 21. He was 63 years old.

Lawyer barbara findlay describes the news of Deva’s passing as akin to “having a bomb drop through a canopy of a forest.”

“There’s a great big hole in the universe where Jim Deva used to be,” findlay says of the man, who, along with his partner, Bruce Smyth, and store manager Janine Fuller, tenaciously fought Canadian border officials’ seizures, destruction and censorship of gay books and other materials for two decades, a fight that went all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada.

For countless community members, the Davie Street store is a lightning rod for connection and activism, a space to congregate in times of crisis or simply seek out Deva’s support and advice.

“Jim was part of building a community back in the days when the number of people who were willing to be out could effectively be counted one hand,” findlay recalls. “Thanks to him and others like him, we now have a community which is strong and vibrant, and one of the things we can promise him is we won’t let this stop, we won’t let the store die, we won’t let his legacy be forgotten.”

Barb Snelgrove says the community is “taking a beating this year,” pointing to the passing of ted northe in March and now Deva. “A little bit of our backbone is little bit weaker.”

Snelgrove, who worked with Deva on a number of community initiatives, including time on the City of Vancouver’s LGBTQ advisory committee, remembers him as a “cherished friend” who was undeniably passionate about his community and someone whose opinion she could always seek — “as crusty as it always was,” she says with a chuckle.

“I can’t even fathom him not being here anymore,” Snelgrove adds. “A lot of what our community is, is because of the work Jim has done over the years; we are the stronger and the better for it, and I’m only sorry he won’t be here to see its growth.”

Within hours of Deva’s death, Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson released a statement honouring him. “Like so many of us, I was shocked and gravely saddened to hear of Jim Deva’s sudden passing. He was an inspiration to Vancouver and all Canadians, and his irrepressible courage and tireless advocacy for equal rights and free expression played an enormous role in shaping the city that Vancouver is today,” Robertson said. “On behalf of my colleagues on City Council and the citizens of Vancouver, I wish to offer my condolences to Jim’s partner Bruce and all of his family and friends. His counsel will be sorely missed by all of us at City Hall, but his legacy will continue to inspire our work together to keep building a safer, prouder, more inclusive, and more equal Vancouver.”

Tributes continue to pour onto social media as well, as many have taken to Facebook to express their shock at Deva’s passing and to share their own memories of what he meant to them and to the community.

“It hurts my heart to learn a true leader, hero, mentor and friend to so many of us passed away today. Jim Deva,” Vancouver West End MLA Spencer Chandra Herbert writes. “It is so hard to process the loss of a man so full of passion, love, and life. A man that inspired so [many of] us in the battle for liberty, equality, free speech, and above all love. Love you Jim, and thank you for being you, all of you. Rest in peace. You live on in so many.”

Across Canada, members of the community are also reeling from the news. “Jim was a great leader,” says Ken Popert, president and executive director of Pink Triangle Press, which publishes Xtra. “He was one of the founders who created and shaped our communities, positioning Little Sister’s locally as an outstanding community resource and nationally as a force in the fight for freedom of expression.

“He still had much to give,” Popert adds. “It saddens and angers me that we’ve lost him so suddenly and in such an arbitrary way.”

Back at Little Sister’s, a visibly devastated Julie Stines walks around the store. “He’s family; I lost my brother,” she says. “He was my mentor. He had his days, but I could always talk to him about anything.”

She says his vision of Little Sister’s mirrored the vision he had for the community. “He wanted people to have access to everything — lube, books, leather. That was what Jim Deva was about. It’s sex; everybody needs to have sex.”

He relished his role as teacher, she says. “He was like, ‘Okay, you want this, you want that, I will find that for you, because why not? People should be able to have sex any which way they want.’”

Deva lived to celebrate difference, Stines notes. “There was no discrimination about anybody who comes in here. It’s a safe place for anyone and everyone, that’s what it is — it’s a hub, it’s a beacon.”

Walking toward the back of the store, Stines points to the shelving and other infrastructure she constructed. “I walk about this place, and Jim lives in every book, in every leaf, in every piece of wood, every light fixture,” she says. “I was a part of everything that went up and down in this place.”

“I can’t be here and not feel him,” Stines continues. “I can call myself a carpenter because I can look about this place and say I did that carpentry and much more, because it’s about the place I love. This place is full of souls, full of people who need books and made our gay community and made us all come out and march and do things, and make us want to be here on this planet, and he is a part of that.”

A celebration of Devas life will take place on Saturday, Sept 27 from 3:30 to 5:30pm at St Andrew’s-Wesley United Church (1012 Nelson St). The family asks that donations be made to the LOUD Foundation Scholarship Fund in lieu of flowers.