Opinion
2 min

Jim Deva’s legacy is a lesson in never settling

How Yoda slew the Emperor

Past and present staff of Little Sister’s raised a toast to its co-owners, Bruce Smyth and Jim Deva (centre), for the store’s 25th birthday in 2008. Credit: David Ellingsen

Jim Deva faced the world with mischief writ large. His Yoda face — pointy ears, intense deep-blue eyes and toothless smile — conspired with a visitor: “I know you’ve been up to mischief,” his face said. “I like mischief, too. Tell me about it.”

You’d share. He’d share. His eyes would get even more intense and a tooth or two would appear.

At his core, Jim was a shit-disturber, the best kind: he always had a purpose in stirring it up. In eight years at the editorial helm of Xtra Vancouver, I often interviewed him. For a while, I frequently met for breakfast with Jim and sometimes his partner, Bruce. We were conspiring a strategic community response to the murder of photographer Aaron Webster at the end of a baseball bat in a gay cruising area.

Jim was deeply affected by Webster’s death and plunged himself into a multidimensional response. It must not be meaningless, he insisted. It was a catalyzing event that could alter the flow of history in how police, the Crown and judges deal with the local gay — and extended — community. It’s partially achieved.

He wasn’t always strategic about an issue, sometimes holding his nose and plunging in. He was confident that he would somehow best any crocodiles that might be awaiting him below. He fought big crocodiles, the biggest of which was Canada Customs and the Canadian government.

Customs dared put Jim’s young bookstore at risk and, more to the point, confiscated the information queers need to live safe, full and diverse lives and to celebrate our sexuality and creative culture. As detailed elsewhere in this issue, Little Sister’s won a partial court victory over Canada Customs. And in that very public journey, Jim, Bruce and store manager Janine Fuller won over the Canadian public in a way still playing out through the contentious issues of marijuana laws, prostitution and government surveillance of all citizens.

He plunged equally into other issues, especially those connecting directly to building a diverse and welcoming West End for gays throughout the region to build community. He helped get city hall acknowledgment of our community under COPE and now Vision. And he did more, oh so much more, than most achieve in a lifetime.

He was often passionately confrontational in meetings with power holders. Jim knew from experience that progress on an issue requires beginning with visible contention. You have to push against the status quo and also the tiny steps that some are prepared to settle for. Otherwise, the powerful serve you jujubes from a gold plate while eating steak themselves. Ask for a lot, create friction and discomfort, settle for more than some are prepared to accept. Throw in a huge dose of love and goodwill. Try to co-opt your adversaries. Rinse, repeat. That was Jim’s approach, and his legacy shows it works.

He loved to argue with friends, too. “Bullshit, Kirkby,” he’d yell in the midst of lighthearted banter at his store. And go off on a 10-minute rant that connected only tangentially to our original topic. It was a delight to experience. Rarely, he’d concede after a big laugh and, yes, with that conspiratorial look on his face.

Jim’s legacy is a lesson in never settling. Fight for it all. From the right to own your own sexuality and choose your own reading, to your right to a safe and fulfilling life, to your responsibility — and pleasure — in building an amazing and creative community. If we each do that, we will change the world.

To honour this five-foot-something giant with the conspiratorial gaze is to pick an issue you care about and fight for it with love in your heart.