Before sex workers were displaced from the West End in the 1980s, Jamie Lee Hamilton remembers the strong sense of community that the workers shared in the neighbourhood.
“We shared our lives, we supported one another, we created our own strategies around safety and security, we kept the area a pimp-free area, and so that all ended once the displacement occurred,” the long-time advocate for sex workers said in a phone interview with the Straight.
As Hamilton marks the recent 30-year anniversary of a B.C. Supreme Court decision that banned sex workers from the West End, she believes that now is a more crucial time than ever to raise public awareness of the impacts that event had.
She noted that after being banned from the West End in July 1984, sex workers moved to Mount Pleasant, and then to the Downtown Eastside.
“Once…the eviction, as we call it, occurred, three women in the Mount Pleasant area were picked up and murdered and put in shallow graves out in the Mission area,” said Lee.
“So there was that impact, and it just went on and on and on…resulting in the Downtown Eastside killing fields.”
Hamilton added that before the court decision, city council brought in a new ‘street activities’ bylaw, which led to sex workers being fined up to $2,000.
“It really devastated people’s lives,” she said. “I watched that, because, you know, it’s my friends, I was out there—I was one of them that got the $2,000 fine.”
In 2008, Hamilton co-founded the West End Sex Work Memorial Project with UBC professor Becki Ross. They are seeking a formal, public apology from Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson, and financial reparations for the fines collected. They want to use those reparations to fund a permanent memorial to the displaced sex workers at Davie and Bute streets.
Next week, Hamilton said the memorial committee plans to make a formal submission to city manager Penny Ballem on the issue.
“There was a whole community there, and there’s complete erasure,” Hamilton stated.
“If they’re talking about reconciliation, we also have to talk about reconciliation of this community.”