Whenever a friend comes to visit me in Vancouver I make a point of taking them for a walk through the Downtown Eastside. I think it is important for all Canadians to see East Hastings.
Three years ago I decided to spend the summer working in Whistler. I had never been to Vancouver before, and while I had heard stories about the Downtown Eastside I thought I knew what “Canadian poverty” looked like.
I considered myself a relatively aware person. I had walked through Toronto’s Jane and Finch. I had been to Montreal’s St-Henri and St-Michel. However, nothing prepared me for the depths of deprivation in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
Last weekend I took my friend Dave for a walk down Hastings. Dave moved to Canada from South Africa and he has seen his share of poverty. However, he was shocked at what he saw, just as everyone else has been.
Every developing country in the world, no matter how impoverished, has a small affluent minority known as a comprador elite. These wealthy few live in enclaves of luxury amongst widespread poverty.
Vancouver has the reverse, a concentrated minority living in the margins while affluence and decadence abounds around them: a slice of the third world in the middle of the first.
Perhaps what makes the Downtown Eastside especially shocking is its centrality.
It is not a distant project or outlying slum. Someone could stand up from their $500 seat at GM Place and within minutes find themselves in the epicenter of a Canadian neighbourhood where HIV and Hepatitis C infection rates are similar to those found in some of the most impoverished nations on earth.
While speaking with a resident a few months ago I was asked why I chose to report from the Downtown Eastside. I explained that one day I wanted to work as a foreign correspondent in the developing world and I thought that the area was the best place in Canada for me to train.
He looked confused, “One day?” he said, “Look around, this is the third world… How do you like it?”