On the mean streets of Downtown Eastside

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 28 January, 2008, 12:00am


The question of whether it's safer to walk down the streets of Haiti or Vancouver's Downtown Eastside was answered last week during a visit by Canada's governor general.

Michaelle Jean - who was warmly welcomed in Haiti during a visit there and had an uneventful tour despite concerns about her safety - received a much rockier reception in Vancouver.

Protesters heckled and swore at her, creating the sort of mayhem for which Downtown Eastside activists are renowned.

The issues they seek to highlight - poverty, inadequate housing and funding for women's centres - have plenty of resonance. But those messages are often lost in the brutality of their delivery.

Ms Jean would appear to be the ideal candidate to persuade Downtown Eastside activists to soften their tactics. She may be the British queen's representative in Canada, with all the pomp that entails, but Ms Jean came from decidedly underprivileged circumstances. The child of refugees who fled Haiti in the 1960s, she grew up understanding poverty and has spent her life championing the underdog.

She became a broadcast journalist and social activist, promoting better conditions for women - especially single mothers and impoverished immigrants.

Unlike the last governor general, the patrician Hong Kong-born Adrienne Clarkson, Ms Jean has used her humble background to connect with the poor and disenfranchised. In Haiti two years ago, she was greeted like a long-lost sister by thousands.

But they're a tougher crowd in Downtown Eastside.

Ms Jean took pains to try to avoid any impression that she was simply a tourist in Vancouver's seediest neighbourhood. When Ms Clarkson visited in 2004, city crews cleaned the streets ahead of her short walkabout, which also drew crowds of taunting protesters.

Mayor Sam Sullivan - not a popular person in the neighbourhood - stayed away to give Ms Jean a chance to see what was happening in the Downtown Eastside without his galvanising presence.

But to no avail. The protesters yelled and chanted at Ms Jean as she walked three blocks from Downtown Eastside to the nearby Dr Sun Yat-Sen Gardens in Chinatown.

'It's a war on the poor and we hope the governor general would stand up and say something about that,' said Kim Kerr of the Downtown Eastside Residents Association.

The rough reception appeared to unnerve the governor general, who has not had such a welcome anywhere in the world. At one point, she appeared to mouth the words 'I know' to protesters, but to no avail. The next night, at a neighbourhood gallery where she talked about how the arts can help sustain poor neighbourhoods, police had to use a taser gun on one man just a few metres away from where Ms Jean was speaking. He had nothing to do with the protests and was under the influence of cocaine, combative and yelling at authorities. But the activists cited the man's handling as an example of how the poor in the neighbourhood were being treated.

The protests clearly rattled Ms Jean. She flew home to Ottawa a day earlier than planned.

The activists got their media attention but they also made it clear that anyone is a potential enemy - even someone such as Ms Jean, sympathetic to their cause and potentially a powerful ally.