3 min

Police apologize for kicking sex workers out of West End

New memorial honours sex workers for the first time in Vancouver

Jamie Lee Hamilton addresses the crowd at the Sept 16, 2016, opening of a new memorial to honour sex workers expelled from the West End in the 1980s.   Credit: Rosemary Newton/Daily Xtra

A Victorian-style lamppost that lights up red at night is the newest addition to the West End. The unique memorial, unveiled Sept 16, 2016, in front of St Paul’s Anglican Church at the corner of Jervis and Pendrell, honours sex workers expelled from the area in 1984.

The lamppost lights up at night.
Rosemary Newton/Daily Xtra

Vancouver Police Department Superintendent Michelle Davey apologized on behalf of the force for its role in enforcing the city’s bylaw to push sex workers out of the West End.

“We recognize the bravery, the courage of the sex workers of the 1980s,” she told the approximately 150 people who gathered for the monument’s official opening.

Superintendent Michelle Davey apologizes on behalf of the Vancouver Police Department.
Rosemary Newton/Daily Xtra

“This is the hooker-hood,” affirmed Becki Ross, a sociology professor at the University of British Columbia, to applause. “They have not been honoured until now.”

Ross partnered with indigenous trans sex worker advocate Jamie Lee Hamilton to co-found the West End Sex Workers Memorial Committee in 2008.

Becki Ross addresses the crowd.
Rosemary Newton/Daily Xtra

“As sex workers rights’ movements gather traction and grow internationally, from India to Cambodia to Turkey to Mexico to New Zealand, it’s our time to make a loud, passionate, public declaration that sex workers were and are worthy of collective respect, belonging and humanity,” Ross told the crowd.

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

Hamilton says she first presented the idea for a memorial at a 2008 mayoral debate between NPA candidate Peter Ladner and now-Mayor Gregor Robertson, who was unable to attend today’s opening due to a scheduling conflict, his office told Daily Xtra.

“I have to duly note he is not here today,” Hamilton told the crowd, though she noted the attendance of some “incredible city councillors.”

City Councillor Andrea Reimer offered an official acknowledgment from the City of Vancouver that sex workers were adversely affected by the municipal bylaw that displaced them from the West End.

Andrea Reimer acknowledges that the City of Vancouver bylaw hurt sex workers.
Rosemary Newton/Daily Xtra

“We know now that that view and those actions resulted in great harm to other members of the community, namely sex workers. And not just harm. That’s a very soft word for abduction, torture and murder of many women in our community,” Reimer said.

She acknowledged the city is making progress but has a long way to go. “It’s not really justice, it’s an echo of justice,” she said. “Justice has to live for everyone or it actually lives for none of us.”

Hindy Avery, who worked on the memorial committee, tells Daily Xtra she’s deeply appreciative of the “beautifully designed” monument that recognizes the atrocity and tragedy experienced by sex workers in the West End.

“They were exiled and as a result of their exile many suffered hardships — health-wise and economically — and they were all scattered around the city,” she says.

“When they were here in the West End they had a strong community and they supported and looked out for each other,” she continues.

She says the new memorial shows “that their lives were respected and will be remembered.”

Velvet Steele arrived in Vancouver after the displacement, but says the monument still holds personal significance to her.

Velvet Steele says the memorial is a step forward.
Rosemary Newton/Daily Xtra

“Providing fetish service work, I got to know and meet a lot of people,” she says, including people who have disappeared doing sex work.

The memorial doesn’t wipe away that injustice, she says. “But to see some acknowledgment . . . I think is brave, it’s a step forward.”