With the Portland Hotel Society’s management team having resigned amid allegations of financial mismanagement, some community leaders are suggesting that there is now an opportunity to add a little colour to the leadership of one of the largest service providers in the Downtown Eastside.
“I would like to see some really good, progressive aboriginal representation on there,” said Scott Clark, executive director of Aboriginal Life in Vancouver Enhancement Society. “There must be local people from the community involved. This is an issue with all of these nonprofits in the Downtown Eastside.”
He stressed that inclusion must not occur purely for the sake of appearances.
“Don’t just put your token Indian on that board,” Clark said. “I’ve seen that with so many of these groups in the Downtown Eastside. They tokenize us, they use us for prayers and for openings, and they talk about unceded territory. But when it comes to having a critical aboriginal voice at the table, it’s rare.”
According to a February 2014 social-impact assessment prepared by the City of Vancouver, aboriginal people comprise a disproportionate number of the Downtown Eastside’s sheltered and homeless and continue to struggle with above-average rates of injection-drug use and alcoholism. “Even given a higher population in the Downtown Eastside, aboriginal people are routinely overrepresented in vulnerable groups,” the report states.
Alice Kendall, executive director of the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre, said a lack of community involvement is a concern when talking about an organization with the reach of PHS. She argued that the interim board appointed by B.C. Housing and Vancouver Coastal Health fails to represent the majority of PHS clients.
“They can’t do this without having community people on that board,” Kendall said. “But there isn’t anybody.”
Irwin Oostindie, a community organizer who has worked in mental-health services, said that although it’s common to see Native faces in lower-level positions, there aren’t a lot of aboriginal people with managerial titles at nonprofits.
“There’s a glass ceiling in the Downtown Eastside where low-income, marginalized residents only get access to certain jobs,” Oostindie said. “That tokenism doesn’t lift people up economically, move them out of the ’hood, or lead to sustainable lifestyles. We need more than token participation in leadership.”
“Nonprofit-industrial complex” is the term that Richard Marquez used to describe a lot of what he sees in the Downtown Eastside.
“There’s this kind of treatment toward people of colour and immigrants where it’s like they need to be cared for or saved,” the residential manager at Lookout Emergency Aid Society explained. Marquez maintained that service providers need to strive for greater diversity.
“This is widespread, not just in the nonprofit sector but in government,” he continued. “This is institutionalized. If you go into the courts, you’re going to see that the majority of the judges are white men passing sentences on aboriginal people and poor people and immigrants.”
Marquez said that with an organization like PHS, the solution might be to set a certain number of management positions aside for people of colour, lower-income people, and women.