Image by Murray Bush / Vancouver Media Coop

This is the second of five installments of our “Top Stories of 2010″ countdown. Here we tell the story of how the announcement of the “BC Missing Women Commission of Inquiry” and of “Project Sister Watch” were made possible only by the constant advocacy of aboriginal women.

None of these stories would have unfolded or seen the light of day in the absence of community organizing and grassroots activism. The take-home-message of 2010, it seems, is that activism can be effective while defining who we are.

On September 27 2010, the BC Provincial government finally announced an official commission charged with investigating the failure of the police to respond meaningfully to reports of missing women in the Vancouver Downtown Eastside between 1997 and 2002.

The commission has come far too late, is too small in scope, and is chaired by the wrong person. But it is important to recognize that its existence is owed to the persistent advocacy of community activists. The Women’s Memorial March, for example, has continued to be held in the Downtown Eastside on Valentine’s Day annually since 1991.

Community activist Gladys Radek maintains that at least 3,000 indigenous women have gone missing in Canada since the 1970s. Over the years, her organization Walk4Justice has organized several treks to raise awareness of the fact that the Pickton murders are only the tip of the iceberg.

This is the first of five installments of our “Top Stories of 2010” countdown. None of these stories would have unfolded or seen the light of day in the absence of community organizing and grassroots activism.

In 2010, BC Liberal Education Minister Margaret MacDiairmid continued Gordon Campbell’s attrition policy aimed at undermining pubic education. Underfunding rocked school districts across the province. Parents organized against the cuts, and their campaign forced MacDiarmid to at least temporarily reverse cuts to the Annual Facilities Grant.

While many elected school trustees across the province timidly implemented the cuts, the Vancouver School Board (VSB), which had a $17M funding shortfall, fought back. On April 4th, VSB Chair Patti Bacchus suggested that MacDiarmid resign for denying the funding crisis. On April 10th, MacDiarmid asked the Comptroller General to “review” VSB finances. The VSB found out about the review through the media, for which MacDiarmid had to apologize. Bacchus emphasized that the real issue – provincial underfunding – was excluded from the scope of the review.

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In addition to rent increases caused by the upscaling and renovation of dozens of low-income buildings around the city, Vancouver is losing affordable housing through the outright demolition of buildings. Last month, City Council approved the demolition of the Cecil Hotel. Two months ago, Vancouver City Council approved the loss of almost all low-income housing at the American Hotel, whose tenants were illegally evicted in 2006. Last year saw a drastic loss of housing, with City Council allowing for the closure of low-income hotels surrounding Woodward’s while granting the demolition permit for the 224 housing units at Little Mountain.

Today, however, the provincial and municipal governments jointly proclaim a “partnership of excellence” in the fight against homelessness. Some journalists have written of the “tight bond” between the Province and City under Mayor Gregor Robertson, and it has recently been reported that many Vision councilors were favorable towards Rich Coleman’s leadership bid for the BC Liberal Party because of “all the progress he has been able to make with the City of Vancouver on social housing during this Vision Vancouver term.”[i]

More than anything else, the proclaimed successes of the “partnership” revolve around the construction of fourteen sites of social housing in Vancouver, known as the ‘Vancouver sites.’ The myth of these fourteen sites can be traced to the destruction of housing at Little Mountain.

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This winter, Vancouver has already been hit by record snowfalls and low temperatures. Despite weather forecasters of a coldsnap beginning Nov 18 2010, the City did not have any preparations made for those in need of shelter. On Nov 19th, the City issued a press release entitled, “City prepares for cold, snowy winter ahead,” which made no mention of any preparations for shelters, as noted by one blogger.

The truth is that there was a severe shortage of shelters because the City and the Province had shut down more than half of Vancouver’s low-barrier shelters in April 2010, with no plans for new ones. As a result, by Nov 21st 2010, existing shelters were overflowing, and the situation deteriorated as temperatures dropped below -5 degrees Celsius in the following days.

Instead of pointing out the recent history of shelter closures, the media uncritically reported on stories of City councilors and shelter providers congratulating themselves for being more prepared than ever. The daily 24hours reported: “Seeing every community organization at the ready and having room to spare is great news for those who remember how scattered the response was a few years ago.”

But behind the scenes, the City and Province scrambled to come up with a plan. On Nov 23rd, the coldest night of the year, they announced funding for four shelters to be opened at later dates at locations to-be-determined – half of those shelters still have not opened. Rather than acknowledging the mistake of having closed down needed shelters in the spring with no plan for the winter, government officials turned the situation completely upside down, congratulating themselves for adding so-called “new” shelters.