Winters Residents Want Truth and Justice One Year After Fire

One-year anniversary of Winters fire, April 11, 2023. Photo credit: Tintin Yang

April 14, 2023: This week marks one year since the tragic fire at the Atira-operated Winters Hotel.  The fire, which occurred on April 11, 2022, was entirely preventable, displacing 72 residents and claiming the lives of tenants Mary Ann Garlow and Dennis Guay. Residents in nearby buildings were also displaced, as the fire and smoke reached into hotels like the Gastown, rendering them uninhabitable and bringing the total number to 144 permanently displaced by the fire.

On Tuesday, April 11, 2023, survivors of the fire spoke out, marched in the streets, and held a memorial for those lost. Former Winters residents began the action at the now-vacant site of the fire at 102 Water Street, alongside community members and supporters with the Our Homes Can’t Wait coalition. They latched dozens of padlocks to the perimeter fence, symbolizing the number of homes lost in the fire and the number of residents displaced. The march continued past multiple Atira offices and buildings and ended across from Oppenheimer Park with a memorial and flower-laying ceremony at the foot of Atira Property Management’s head office.

 The march also marked the launch of a class action lawsuit led by former Winters residents against Atira (Property Management Inc., Development Society, and Women’s Resource Society), the City of Vancouver (Fire and Rescue Services), and Winters Residence Ltd. (the landowner). The lawsuit is a next step in the ongoing effort to make the government, non-profit landlords, and property managers answerable for their systemic negligence in buildings like the Winters. Winters resident, survivor, and class action plaintiff Jenn Hansma put it like this: 

I lost my best friend, my cat, my family heirlooms, gifts from my mother who’s passed away. I’ll never get anything back. $500 and a TV aren’t enough for any of us to start our lives over again. We’ve waited long enough for answers from Atira. Now it’s time for answers.

 One year later and there has been no adequate reckoning, no proper compensation, and no genuine support offered to the survivors of a completely avoidable and preventable fire. Although Atira ran a successful donation drive after the fire, survivors reported that they received very little if any of these donations. Multiple facts about the preventable nature of the fire have also come to light. First, the fire occurred after Atira ignored repeated fire violation warnings. Second, it has since been revealed that on the day of the fire, all fire extinguishers in the building were empty and the building’s fire sprinkler system was turned off. Smoke detectors were also turned off and no alarms were sounding during the fire. Equally concerning is that many residents were quickly shuffled to another SRO which similarly lacked a functioning fire alarm system and was under fire watch. 

In July 2022, the provincial government announced a coroner’s inquest to be led by Mike Farnworth, Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General. No date has been set for the inquest. The owner of the Winters Hotel was well-known DTES slumlord Peter Plett. Three days after the fire, Plett sold the property on the private market for substantial financial gain.

 Since the Winters fire, SRO fires have displaced tenants from the Empress Hotel, Princess Rooms, 568 Powell Street, Keefer Rooms, Sereena’s Place, and more. According to data from Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services made available last summer, about 40% of SROs (72 out of 181) had active Fire By-Law violations. Despite these Fire Bylaw violations, nothing has changed. To add insult to injury, the language of fire safety has been used to violently remove homeless residents from Hastings Street, while doing nothing to improve fire safety in either tents or SRO buildings. 

Last year, VANDU’s Our Streets program ran a highly successful fire safety stewardship initiative in the Hastings encampment. When asked for support in this initiative, Vancouver’s Fire Department said it did not have the money to provide fire extinguishers to residents of the block. Working with residents in the Hastings tent city, Our Streets took it upon themselves to purchase and distribute fire extinguishers, designate fire captains, and lead fire safety trainings. Aero, a former tent city resident and organizer with the #StoptheSweeps campaign, put it like this:

When people come together and stand for what they believe in, things happen. People in the tent city are fucking heroes. They’re doing more in the tent city than the Fire Department…we now have fire captains each with fire extinguishers. We had to do fundraising to get those [fire extinguishers] out to them because the Fire Department said they didn’t have a budget to purchase more.[1]

In November 2022, the Our Streets contract was terminated. Since then, mayor Ken Sim, city council, and the fire department have done nothing to address the continued need and demand for fire extinguishers and fire safety training for those tenting on Hastings and elsewhere in the DTES. 

The fires at Winters and elsewhere demonstrate the systemic failings of politicians, government bureaucrats, and non-profit housing providers who refuse to take accountability for protecting the lives of the people they house. Meanwhile, the same parties deploy the language of fire safety as a weapon in their displacement and gentrification agenda for the DTES. The same fire safety rhetoric used to displace the Hastings encampment is increasingly being used cynically by slumlords who want to sell off buildings that have suffered decades of neglect, under-funding, lack of basic maintenance, and virtually no municipal oversight to ensure bylaw and code compliance. This comes at a time when Premier David Eby wants to “get rid of the SROs.”[2]

Residents of various supportive housing facilities and SROs in the DTES are, not surprisingly, moving to form tenants’ unions. Facing dangerous living conditions and unresponsive operators,  tenants at The Portland Hotel took matters into their own hands earlier this year, forming the Portland Tenants Union. The organization brought their demand for their elevator to be fixed directly to PHS, with resounding success. The story has quickly spread across the neighborhood, inspiring others with the idea that there might be hope in their own collective power. With conditions being allowed to deteriorate as far as they have, this is no small feat.

Systemic negligence is rapidly destroying homes and lives alike. As an OHCW pamphlet distributed at the one-year anniversary march said: “the City and Province are letting landlords like Atira operate deadly, unsafe buildings.” Negligence is arson, read another banner at the action.

Photo credit: Tintin Yang


[1] Aero speaking at the Fire Safety Town Hall (November 12, 2022), Carnegie Community Centre, event organized by Our Homes Can’t Wait

[2] “We’ve pulled together 50 stakeholders…to start the conversation about how we are going to create a plan to move the Downtown Eastside from the state of crisis it’s in into a healthy low-income community. It’s going to involve things like getting rid of the Single Room Occupancy buildings.” Harold Munro, “A town hall Q&A with B.C. Premier David Eby,” The Vancouver Sun (April 6, 2023)