Bright lights transform our view of the city

Carlo Sayo’s activism spans two continents

Carlo Sayo
Filipino-Canadian youth organizer

At 26, Carlo Sayo is already a veteran activist. He was only 13 when he started volunteering with the Vancouver-based Ugnayan ng Kabataang Pilipino sa Canada (Filipino-Canadian Youth Alliance). Last year, the group linked up with Montreal- and Toronto-based Filipino youth organizations to form a national alliance bearing the FCYA name. Sayo was elected chairperson.

Sayo's activist work spans two worlds. He's raising consciousness among Filipino-Canadian youth about their legal rights. As well, he's at the forefront of education campaigns to make the young aware of the human-rights situation and social conditions in the Philippines.

"We have our rights and welfare here not just [as] an immigrant community but as citizens of Canada," Sayo told the Straight. "Because there are still Filipinos entering Canada, we also have to look at the conditions why they are coming in the first place. It's important for us to be able to make those connections."

Born and raised in Canada, Sayo used to listen to his immigrant parents talk about the plight of the poor and powerless in their native country. In 1999, he travelled to the Philippines for an exposure program. For four months, he slept at picket lines with striking factory workers, stayed in both urban slum and rural communities, and talked directly to the people about their lives.

"That was the first time I went as an adult," Sayo recalled of his Philippine journey. "When I was organizing with Ugnayan [FCYA] here in Vancouver, we can only hear stories about what's going on in the Philippines. When you actually experience it yourself, you realize how privileged you are. You have a more open consciousness."

Besides the Filipino community, the FCYA also works with other immigrant communities, First Nations groups, campus-based organizations, and has formed alliances with working-class advocacy groups like the Bus Riders Union.

"One challenge is building genuine support for each other's causes," Sayo said. "There are so many issues that affect us as citizens and as working-class people, it becomes important to build alliances and networks with others that believe in genuine solidarity between peoples, cultures, and sectors."

A graduate of Emily Carr Institute, Sayo noted that the arts is a powerful medium for activists. A graphic designer and a poet, Sayo is also a founding member of the Sinag Bayan (Light of the Nation) Cultural Arts Collective, a Filipino-Canadian group that combines performance, theatre, song, spoken word, and visual arts to promote empowerment.

Sayo helps organize cultural events like the annual Asian Heritage Month–related Roots, Rhymes and Resistance show, which features Filipino artists and guest performers from other communities. He has also performed at events like the Vancouver Folk Music Festival and North Vancouver's Under the Volcano festival.

"It's very important to look beyond your immediate sector of society as an organizer," Sayo said. "We don't just reach out to [Filipino] youth, but also to migrants, to people of colour, to other working-class people."

Heather Duff changes the city through theatre

Heather Duff
Artistic director, Vancouver Youth Theatre

Twenty years ago, in 1987, Heather Duff was wandering the streets of Vancouver searching for a waitressing gig when she caught sight of the offices of Vancouver Youth Theatre, then located near Broadway and Fir. Intrigued, the then-29-year-old wandered in and met Carole Tarlington, who had founded the group in 1983. Duff, a former youth worker and UBC MFA graduate in creative writing, expressed an interest in theatre.

"By the end of the conversation, she'd offered me a position as a part-time theatre director," recalled Duff, who took on the role of artistic director of the company in 2001. "I was very impressed with what she [Tarlington] was doing. It's a very innovative theatre company because everything is original and everything is generated by the youth, in partnership with an adult professional. We've kept the same mission statement for all these years."

VYT has flourished as an organization dedicated not only to training youth aged five to 18 in the basics of theatre but also to helping young people explore issues such as race relations, bullying, and social justice. To date, the company has produced more than 10 original touring plays and musicals, close to 50 original plays that have been performed in theatres for the public, and hundreds of in-house performances–all of this created by youth.

A current production, Say Peace, discusses, in Duff's words, "what it means to stand up for peace in a world of conflict". Participants did extensive research and delved into their family histories by interviewing parents and grandparents. One actor, Hoori Barkh, wrote a monologue based on her mother's experiences of being a teenager in war-torn Iran. "I remember every morning," Barkh's piece begins, "I'd wake up to the sound of the newsman on the radio telling us how many soldiers were killed last night or how many dead bodies were found this morning." That production, directed by Duff, toured secondary schools last year and will be appearing next Sunday (September 30) on the mainstage of Vancouver's Word on the Street festival.

There are fees for participating in VYT's programs, but scholarships and bursaries are awarded and, Duff insisted, "We never turn anybody away for socioeconomic reasons." While some of the participants in VYT's programs go on to become professional actors, most, says Duff, "do it because they really love it and it helps them feel at home in the world".

As for why Duff–who recently enrolled in a PhD program at UBC in theatre and drama education–has stayed on as long as she has, she said, simply: "I think I would have loved to have done something like that when I was young."

Henry Yu shines a light on racial issues

Henry Yu
UBC associate professor of history

As a high-school student in the Victoria suburb of Colwood in the 1970s, Henry Yu recalls how mystified he felt being surrounded by a sea of white faces. Yu was from an old B.C. family–his great-grandfather brought four sons to B.C., and his grandfather worked in the Dunsmuir coal mines on Vancouver Island. Yet Yu was clearly in the minority, and he certainly didn't see himself reflected back in the media or in history books.

In an interview with the Straight at his East Side home, Yu said his decision to become an academic historian was part of a journey of self-discovery.

"It's a kind of feeling like, 'I don't know who I am, because the history I've been given doesn't speak to me,'" he said.

From the time Chinese settlers arrived on Meares Island in the 18th century to the arrival of Japanese and South Asian immigrants in the 19th century, B.C. has always had a very multicultural population and strong links with Asia. Yu, an expert on migration, has concluded that after B.C. joined Confederation in 1871, there was a systematic effort to erase this reality with a new vision based on the concept of white supremacy.

"You say white supremacy and people think Nazis, apartheid, and the American South," he said.

However, Yu argues that this white supremacy resulted from the expansion of the Canadian "empire" at the end of the 19th century and through the first half of the 20th century. After the railway linked B.C. with the rest of Canada in 1885, Caucasian settlers poured into the province, overwhelming the local population. The growing number of Caucasians in B.C. opposed aboriginal rights and immigration from Asia and pushed for a head tax on Chinese immigrants, as well as restricting nonwhites from entering the legal profession, voting, or living in particular neighbourhoods.

In 1907, angry Caucasian mobs attacked Vancouver's Chinatown and Japantown, using violence to achieve their objectives. The following year, the Japanese government agreed to sharply restrict immigration to Canada, and 15 years after that, the federal government banned Chinese immigration altogether.

This year, Yu organized a series of events to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the riots, because he believes they were a milestone in B.C.'s history. He acknowledged that it's sometimes a "hard sell" to convince people that what happened 100 years ago was instrumental in creating "structures of white supremacy" that still benefit some migrants more than others. However, he claimed that this legacy is still apparent in what he called "accent politics".

He argued, for instance, that a person with a Scottish or South African accent from a Caucasian part of the former British Empire has a better chance of moving into a management position than someone from a nonwhite part of the former empire with a Chinese or Indian accent. "That's an imperial legacy," he said.

Yu said his mission is to create the idea of a "Pacific Canada", one that is distinct from Central Canada and that recognizes our links with Asia. He added that Library and Archives Canada could enhance our collective understanding of our past by making Chinese immigration files and First Nations residential-schooling records accessible to the public at its Lower Mainland facility.

He pointed out that a Vancouver resident must now travel to Ottawa or hire a research company to request an archival record in Ottawa, even though many of these documents are stored in Burnaby. "That single step [making records accessible] would create a revolution in how we understand the history of ourselves in this place," Yu said.

Indira Prahst takes on mainstream media

Indira Prahst
South Asian community advocate

Indira Prahst, a sociology instructor at Langara College, will never be mistaken for an ivory-tower academic. She prefers to mix it up and is not afraid to take on the mainstream media whenever she feels that the local South Asian population is being victimized by stereotypical representations.

In a phone interview with the Straight, Prahst claimed that the media's handling of news about domestic violence and gang activity has stigmatized the community. "What happens in many cases in news coverage is that when you have a South Asian case, you already have an entire context in which you frame your article–'Oh, another case, domestic violence, South Asian'–as if there's already a taken-for-granted explanation that, culturally, there is something naturally violent about this group," she said.

Prahst, an expert on family and ethnic relations, added that her goal is to challenge mainstream media to cover this community in a culturally sensitive way. She noted that there had been a disproportionate number of violent incidents reported in the media against South Asian wives. This gives the impression that spousal cruelty is inherent in South Asian culture and is not a problem in other communities.

Prahst has organized forums that allow women as well as men to talk about the issue of domestic violence. One such forum will be held on October 4, from 7 to 9 p.m. at Langara College.

She said that participation in recent forums demonstrates that people in the community are speaking out. "It shows that there is a problem," Prahst said. "The community is slowly breaking the silence to dialogue around the issue. If a woman speaks out in front of so many people, she can speak out against the person who will be abusing her."

Gang activity has also focused media attention on the community, according to Prahst. "I've lost students to the underworld," she said. "That has motivated me to work towards prevention. I'm involved in antigang resistance education through a focus on deglorified aspects of gang life."

Prahst is a regular contributor to the Indo-Canadian Voice, a newspaper edited by Rattan Mall, an equally outspoken critic of mainstream media. "She has a viewpoint that has to be respected," Mall told the Straight. "She really knows the community."

Prahst is also involved with such groups as the South Asian Education Film Society, the South Asian Network for Secularism and Democracy, and the South Asian Family Association.

Her passion about issues involving race and colour goes deep into her family background. Her father, of Indian descent, met her mother–a German–in Switzerland while he was still a student. "I saw the reality of colour through my father, who was given a different treatment compared to my mother," Prahst said without elaborating.

Prahst and her husband have two children. Their son, according to Prahst, is "brown" and "a spitting image" of her late father. Their daughter looks Caucasian and has blue eyes. "She's learning Indian dances," the proud mother said. "She's also learning [the] German language and violin."

Jim Deva is a powerful advocate for LGBT rights.

Jim Deva
Co-owner of Little Sister's Book & Art Emporium

Jim Deva decided to end his career as a high-school substitute teacher after he was spotted one weekend by some of his students at a gay bar called the Gandy Dancer. The following Monday morning, the kids "worked me over something wicked", Deva recalled during a recent interview with the Straight at his Davie Street bookstore. "I spent so long coming out, I thought there was no way I was going back."

The school system's loss was a big gain for Vancouver's gay and lesbian community as Deva and his partner, co-owner Bruce Smyth, eventually opened a gay and lesbian bookstore in April 1983 on Thurlow Street just off Davie. Deva, who grew up on a farm in northern Alberta, said it was a challenge keeping the store afloat in the early days.

"We were taking in less than $100 a day for almost three years," he recalled with a chuckle. "We were running from the bank to the cash register."

Expo 86 gave the store a boost, and then more business came when Vancouver hosted the Gay Games in 1990. Deva, a founding director of the Vancouver Pride Society, said gay publishing took off in the 1980s and 1990s, and more gay and lesbian people were moving into the West End. However, along the way the store encountered incredible harassment from Canada Customs, triggering a constitutional challenge that went all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada.

The court upheld the store's argument that Customs legislation was applied in a discriminatory manner against gays and lesbians, and ruled that a "minimally intrusive scheme" would ensure that the law was applied properly. "The major travesty of that was they [the Supreme Court justices] somehow believed the federal government would make the changes that needed to be made without monitoring those changes," Deva said.

The lengthy court battle cemented the reputations of Deva and store manager Janine Fuller as fighters for gay and lesbian rights. After Aaron Webster, a gay photographer, was attacked and killed in Stanley Park in 2001, Deva helped organize a rally in the West End, and argued passionately that the murder should be declared a hate crime. "We wanted to get control of the message," he said. "It isn't about a naked man having sex in the park."

He said that Webster's death eventually fostered better relations between the gay and lesbian community and the Vancouver Police Department. Deva gave credit to retired police officer Dave Jones, then the inspector in charge of the downtown district, for stating publicly that Webster's death had all the "earmarks of a hate crime".

As it approaches its 25th year in business, Little Sister's has become a gathering place for the city's gay and lesbian community, distributing tickets to community events at no charge. But Deva said that he worries about the dispersal of the gay and lesbian community to the suburbs, which is being caused in part by the lack of rent controls. He says the city could counteract this loss by building a gay and lesbian community centre on Davie Street with meeting and performance space. "What drew us together was discrimination," Deva said. "Now, it's got to be the social component that keeps us together because we've got to be together in order to be complete."

Indigenous activist Kat Norris fights for aboriginal rights

Kat Norris
Organizer, Indigenous Action Movement

Coast Salish grandmother Kat Norris told the Straight she remembers the Kuper Island residential school she attended for three years as being a "torture chamber". Norris, the main organizer with the Indigenous Action Movement, claimed it was a "horrendous experience" that has left her still dealing with the aftermath 42 years later. Norris confirmed that she suffered "physical and sexual abuse", and said her separation from her two brothers at Kuper Island–a short ferry ride from Chemainus, south of Nanaimo–is a traumatic experience that remains with her to this day. Norris is the eldest of four children, and she and her sister were paired up and split away from their brothers, who were in a separate building at Kuper Island. She said she arrived there from a Nanoose Bay reserve in 1963 and stayed on until 1965, before moving to Vancouver and California, where she spent her teen years.

"It is part of why I have a psychologist that I see once a week, and it is why, throughout my life, I have never been able to keep a steady job or go through school," Norris said of her residential-school experience. "In 1988, I finally was able to get Grade 12, and in 1998 I went to [a Native Education Centre–run] family and community counselling course."

She would not divulge her age, but Norris–born on Valdes Island–said her youthful looks can be attributed to her mother's Coast Salish ancestry and her father's Hawaiian-Filipino and Nez Perce roots. She is sensitized to racism in general–but especially when it's directed against First Nations people. With a hint of irony, Norris said she believes that California was her favourite place to live in some ways, because she was accepted into the multicultural mix without any stigma around her aboriginal heritage: "In California, I got to be just another brown face out there."

In her volunteer work with IAM, Norris has demanded an inquiry into the death of Mi'kmaq Frank Paul (found dead from hypothermia in 1998 after being released by Vancouver police), organized a Sechelt rally to protest the July 2 RCMP pepper-spraying of First Nations soccer parents, and put on an August 7 rally to raise awareness about the fact that "Kitsilano belongs to the Squamish people."

In her job, Norris works with aboriginal youth in the Downtown Eastside as part of an aboriginal-youth health project funded by UBC and Providence Health Care. "I give voice to people that don't have a voice," she said by phone.

Jerry Adams, urban aboriginal representative at the Vancouver Aboriginal Friendship Centre and Vancouver Police Board member, told the Straight he thinks the work Norris does is "great".

"I think she is very proactive and always busy helping people in the community," Adams said by phone. "She is usually working hard fighting for people's rights–usually the disadvantaged–and she has lots and lots of energy and is very supportive of elders and children. You will see her doing craft fairs, everything."

Ned Jacobs strives for better housing and effective transit.

Ned Jacobs
Sustainable transportation and housing advocate

Ned Jacobs likes to call himself a country boy from New York City. He also happens to be one of Vancouver's most dedicated and intelligent activists.

Jacobs, son of famed urban-affairs analyst and author Jane Jacobs, is a cofounder of Community Advocates for Little Mountain, which is trying to stop the provincial government from shattering the lives of hundreds of people who live in the city's largest social-housing project.

In an interview with the Straight in Queen Elizabeth Park, Jacobs claimed that the B.C. Liberals are prepared to sacrifice an entire community at Little Mountain for the convenience of developers. CALM is lobbying to stop BC Housing, a Crown corporation, from evicting remaining tenants from the 224-unit complex near the corner of Main Street and 33rd Avenue. "It used to infuriate Jane and it infuriates me when I see people treated that way," he said.

Jacobs, who edited and researched his mother's later books, is also a big opponent of the B.C. Liberals' Gateway Program. He wrote a song, "You're a Dinosaur", which ridicules B.C. Transportation Minister Kevin Falcon's multibillion-dollar plan to build more roads and twin the Port Mann Bridge.

"We desperately need a massive improvement in transit, and lower-cost transit," he said. "We've got to get serious about this."

He flatly stated that the B.C. Liberal government is "suppressing" public transit by seizing control over TransLink and ramming through the costly Canada Line, which will siphon money from the bus system. He claimed the province will only provide a fuel-tax increase for transportation if there are corresponding increases in property taxes and transit fares.

Jacobs was arrested for trying to protect Eagleridge Bluffs from being destroyed to make room for an expanded Sea to Sky Highway. He claims this project is designed to make real estate more appealing in the Squamish area. "It's about car-dependent development," he said.

He added that his mother would have been appalled by the provincial government's insistence on using public-private partnerships to deliver large capital projects, such as the Canada Line. Jacobs described these entities as "monstrous hybrids of governance".

"The main purpose of these P3s seems to be to prevent transparency," he said. "She laid it right out there, and it is being totally ignored. When things like that are being totally ignored and they are so apparent and so obvious, you've got to say there are some very, very powerful people who are just concerned about pushing their own private agendas. This is what really scares me: how much our current provincial government is in the pocket of special interests, like the port authority, for instance."

He acknowledged that the port was central to Vancouver's past, but now residents are being told to accept new road capacity to facilitate international trade, even though these projects will harm the city's livability. "It's not environmentally sustainable for us to be moving so many goods around the world," Jacobs claimed. "We've got to produce things locally."