Wednesday, September 22, 2004
POLITICS AS USUAL: DOES YOUR SOUP KITCHEN HAVE A MUSHROOM BOUILLABAISSE?
Vancouver's skid row jeers Clarkson
By JANE ARMSTRONG
From Wednesday's Globe and Mail
Wednesday, Sep 22, 2004
Vancouver — In her baby-blue fleece jacket, Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson gave a steely smile as she waded into the phalanx of protesters yelling unregal epithets at Her Excellency.
The crowd gathered in a noisy clump outside a dental clinic in Vancouver's gritty Downtown Eastside. They were riled that the Governor-General had asked for a tour of one of Canada's poorest neighbourhoods.
It was a small group of no more than two dozen and they were nearly outnumbered by police officers and reporters. But they made lots of noise and dogged Ms. Clarkson and her husband, author John Ralston Saul, every step of the hour-long walkabout.
“Hey Adrienne,” one woman yelled as Ms. Clarkson and Mr. Saul left the clinic and walked along Hastings Street. “Why don't you buy me lunch for two bucks?”
It wasn't clear what — if anything — the protesters wanted, because their grievances changed as the morning walkabout wore on.
Some said they felt degraded at the Governor-General coming for a quickie tour of their troubled neighbourhood. Others accused Vancouver Mayor Larry Campbell of exploiting the neighbourhood by providing the out-of-town couple with a “sanitized” version of the drug-ridden area.
“The Downtown Eastside shouldn't be used as a backdrop for politicians,” anti-poverty activist David Cunningham shouted as onlookers gathered on the sidewalk in the September sunshine.
“It's degrading to see people come down here and walk all over us. This is where homeless people live and die.” The couple arrived — a little late — on foot, dressed casually, as if out for an autumn stroll. After the clinic, they stopped in a coffee shop, toured a recycling depot run for the homeless, visited an art gallery and took a tour through the city's old Woodward's building, which is slated to become a housing development.
They appeared animated and undaunted by the throng of banging drums and rising voices. Ms. Clarkson told reporters it is her job to visit every cranny of Canada.
“This is what the Governor-General should be doing,” she said. “Being with people. No matter who they are. No matter what they do. And living and witnessing what their lives are.”
The epithets ranged from profane to personal. At one point, Mr. Cunningham, chasing Mr. Saul, told the writer he wrote bad books. Mr. Saul did not respond.
The anti-poverty group had planned the demonstration long before the Governor-General arrived. The group also complained that police had rounded up homeless people hours before the tour to make the neighbourhood appear less threatening.
“I could show you a dozen places where homeless people were sleeping last night,” said Adam Pierre, an unemployed man who has lived in the neighbourhood for more than 30 years.
While the Governor-General toured the dental clinic, Mr. Cunningham stood outside and complained that Ms. Clarkson should be outdoors, getting a street-level look at the poverty of the neighbourhood. “The shelters and the food lines are the Downtown Eastside, and they're making sure that no politicians get anywhere close to the reality that we're forced to live in,” he said. “That's where we're going to take Adrienne Clarkson.”
However, the Governor-General made her way to the street on her own time. After the dental clinic, Ms. Clarkson, surrounded by a bubble of reporters, police and protesters, walked east along Hastings Street, a corridor notorious for its drug dealers, prostitutes and homeless. She walked past a young man sleeping on the sidewalk, with a jacket covering his torso.
Ms. Clarkson's Vancouver trip is the last stop in a series of six Canadian cities she has toured since 2003. Her foray into Vancouver's skid row isn't her first up-close brush with deeply entrenched social problems. In Toronto, she toured the downtown neighbourhood of Regent Park, and in Saskatoon, she visited an urban first nations reserve. At the recycling plant, Ms. Clarkson told reporters the protesters have a right to vent their anger.
“It's a free country,” she said, her smile intact. “I was a journalist for years and I was involved in lots of things, where people swung baseball bats and did all sorts of things, and I think people are legitimately concerned with poverty.
“They're legitimately concerned with housing. They're legitimately concerned with their needs, and if it sometimes takes the form of this kind of anger, well so be it. That's the way it is. And that's what the whole thing means is that we should be basically looking at how to make a change that will reduce that anger.”
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