“We’ve come a long way,” Bruce Smyth says, surveying the now officially open Jim Deva Plaza, named in memory of his late partner of more than four decades.
A mentor and community leader to generations of queer Canadians, Deva was a champion of free speech, sexual freedom and celebrating his community’s stories without shame.
Together, he and Smyth opened Vancouver’s first gay bookstore, Little Sister’s, in 1983 and were almost immediately embroiled in controversy when Canada Customs began seizing their shipments.
Not ones to stand quietly in the face of opposition, Deva and Smyth challenged the government and took the border guards to court. It was a fight that spanned decades and eventually went all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada.
Now, a giant megaphone stands in the new plaza, encouraging others to speak out in the face of oppression and censorship.
Inside the megaphone are the words: “A safe space inspired by Jim Deva’s lifelong passion for freedom of sexuality, gender diversity, and the fight against censorship. Where LGBTQ people and allies can meet, share ideas freely, dare to dream, and love unapologetically.”
For more on the legacy of Jim Deva read Daily Xtra’s feature “We’re Not Going to Live in Shame.” (David Ellingsen/Daily Xtra)
Smyth says the celebration at the plaza’s opening night is a far cry from the bookstore’s early days in the 1980s, when gay Pride parade marchers wore paper bags on their heads and were spit on and booed by onlookers.
Deva would have liked the idea of a public space, his partner says.
“He would have been truly embarrassed by having his name attached,” Smyth adds.
Children play inside the new giant megaphone, whose inscription is a tribute to Jim Deva and everything he cherished. (Angelina Cantada/Daily Xtra)
“He loved this street,” Smyth told the crowd at the plaza’s dedication. “Jim was all about love. Love, love, love.”
Hundreds gathered for the plaza’s dedication at the corner of Davie and Bute Street, in the heart of Vancouver’s gay village, July 28, 2016.
In Deva’s spirit, the evening was awash with singing, drag performances and an unapologetic celebration of community.
Watch our video of the plaza’s opening ceremony. (Angelina Cantada and Robin Perelle/Daily Xtra)
Deva’s sister, Trudy Spray, tells Daily Xtra it’s gratifying to see the city and community recognizing her brother’s efforts.
“I know Deva would be extremely pleased to see people gathering and having fun,” she says.
She told the crowd her brother was a gay rights pioneer. “I hope that all who gather here in this plaza will remember Jim Deva, and make this city and this plaza into the one he envisioned it to be,” she says.
Jim Deva’s sister, Trudy Spray, was moved to see the community and the city recognize her brother’s contributions. (Angelina Cantada/Daily Xtra)
When the speeches were done, the speakers gathered to hold a giant pair of scissors and cut the ribbon. With that, cheers, whistles and clapping echoed through Deva’s beloved Davie Village.
The new plaza creates a pedestrian gathering space on Bute Street at the rainbow-crosswalk intersection, with benches, tables, trees, rainbow inlays, the giant megaphone, and decorative lighting still to come.
City council unanimously approved the plaza’s final design on Dec 16, 2015, with a price tag of $2.3 million.
“Don’t you just love the plaza?” Councillor Tim Stevenson asked the crowd, as he thanked city staff and the many community members who helped bring the space to life.
He, too, harkened back to when Little Sister’s first opened on Thurlow Street in 1983, asking spectators to imagine what that space would have been like then, and how standing together openly in the plaza feels now.
“Jim Deva had a great deal to do with what you are feeling now,” Stevenson said. “That sense of safety, that sense of security you are feeling now, in the open, in the plaza.”
City Councillor Tim Stevenson says Jim Deva empowered Vancouver’s LGBT community. (Angelina Cantada/Daily Xtra)
Stevenson said Deva was instrumental in bringing the LGBT community into the open, and empowering it to find its political voice.
“Now, we have a community with a voice,” he told the crowd. “He changed the face of the community within the greater context of this city.”
As police officers mixed with the rainbow-flag carrying crowd, Stevenson said Deva worked to change city policies in Vancouver, to get police to work with the community to combat anti-gay violence and homophobia.
“He wanted more, he wanted better,” Stevenson said.
“This plaza is a symbol of the strides the LGBT community has made,” he said.
“One person can make a difference. Jim Deva did,” Stevenson said.
“Little Sister’s bookstore has always been a home away from home, a gathering place for locals and tourists, for those just coming out, and those wanting to connect. It is only fitting that Jim Deva Plaza be the same,” Barb Snelgrove said. (Angelina Cantada/Daily Xtra)
Plaza steering committee member Barb Snelgrove says she and Deva had an idea for a community space several years ago.
She says his spirit helped her persevere through the bureaucratic process of making it a reality.
“We did it, Jim,” she told the crowd. “We all did it.”
“Little Sister’s bookstore has always been a home away from home, a gathering place for locals and tourists, for those just coming out, and those wanting to connect. It is only fitting that Jim Deva Plaza be the same,” she said.
“May this place be a place of laughter and celebration, of stolen kisses across a table, friendships formed, memories made, horizons broadened, dialogue created, art expressed, games enjoyed, shade given, creativity enhanced, bread broken, children playing, music performed, and all the things that give life its daily smile,” Snelgrove said.
“Thank you, Jim. And welcome everyone to Jim Deva Plaza.”
Jim Deva’s partner of 42 years, Bruce Smyth, says Deva would have liked the idea of a public community space in his beloved Davie Village. (Angelina Cantada/Daily Xtra)
“I think it’s a lovely, great space,” Deva’s long-time friend and colleague Janine Fuller tells Daily Xtra.
But, she says, the brilliance of what can be achieved in this space and how it carries Deva’s legacy forward is now up to the people of Vancouver.
Deva died suddenly on Sept 21, 2014.
The passing of the man some described as “the mayor of Davie Street” left a community in shock and mourning.
“I do have trouble with the world ‘hero,’” Deva told Xtra in 2002, on the eve of accepting Xtra’s award for Community Hero of the Year. “I sort of view myself as a conduit, empowering people to be active. We have so many brilliant, accomplished people in our community and once in a while they just need to be empowered.”
In what turned out to be his last public speech, on Sept 9, 2014 at an Xtra town hall on the politics of being too racy for political office, Jim Deva stressed the importance of sexual honesty, praised masturbation, and shared his lifelong passion for fighting for what you believe in. “Not to win, but it’s because it’s the point of the thing,” he said. “It’s because you should be strong and vote for what you totally, totally believe in.” (Danny Berish/Daily Xtra)