While accompanying a friend on assignment in the Downtown Eastside, I made the acquaintance of a resident named Sue in a shabby East Hastings bodega.
While she is a 59-year-old physically disabled woman, Sue is one of the strongest people I have met in the troubled area.
She told of fleeing abusive relationships while struggling to raise her children, fighting to assert her voice in male dominated Northern Alberta trade unions and working tirelessly to spread awareness of women’s issues in the Downtown Eastside.
It is clear that Sue is a survivor, a wounded veteran of a hidden conflict.
She told us about a disturbing phenomenon evident in her embattled community: young women walking the streets of the Downtown Eastside with scarred and haphazardly shaven heads.
Dealers violently shave the heads of sex workers who owe them money as a warning to others. This practice is reminiscent of the punishment dealt out by resistance fighters in liberated European cities against women who had collaborated with the Nazi occupation.
However, this is not a chaotic postwar society. This is an affluent, polished, gem of a Canadian city. Yet atrocities such as this occur every day just down the street from the luxury stores and tourist attractions of West Hastings.
How can this be?
The Downtown Eastside is a war zone. It is a vicious and enduring asymmetric civil conflict with a multitude of factions and no end in sight.
The gang wars make the front pages as the police struggle to reign in the violence boiling over from Vancouver’s multimillion dollar drug trade, but the scourge of heroin, desperation, poverty and exploitation creates countless more fissures where the battle lines are drawn and no prisoners are taken.
Parasitic slumlords, drug dealers and pimps feed off of low-income tenants, sex workers and addicts while the unaffected live their lives as if the conflict were foreign.
There is a war in our midst, yet while the marginalized victims demand emergency rations of bread, our government brings in a world-class circus.