Powell Street Festival vacates Oppenheimer Park

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      Downtown Eastside activist Jamie Lee Hamilton cherishes the historic connections between Japanese Canadians and First Nations people.

      In a phone interview with the Georgia Straight, the veteran sex-workers advocate described how her aboriginal mother worked at the cannery at the foot of Commissioner Street. Hamilton’s mom belonged to the United Fishermen and Allied Workers Union, which included many members of Japanese descent.

      “I have this great old photograph,” Hamilton said. “It’s a big one taken at the original Fish Hall on Cordova Street, where the Salvation Army is now. It’s full of Japanese women and the First Nations women—and men. There was that camaraderie in the fish canneries.”

      Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Japanese Canadians living along the B.C. coast had their assets seized and were forced to live in prison camps in the Interior for the duration of the Second World War. Hamilton said this didn’t sever the connection between Japanese Canadians and First Nations.

      “There are very close ties,” Hamilton said. “Of course, when the Japanese Canadians had their properties taken away from them—their fishing boats—creating such hardship, the First Nations understood that because of having their land taken.”

      Although Japanese Canadians had a strong prewar presence in Steveston, the centre of the community was in Japantown along Powell Street in the Downtown Eastside. Oppenheimer Park was home to the legendary Vancouver Asahi baseball team, which won many championships. It disbanded as a result of the internment.

      In the 2013 book Spark: The Inspiring Life and Legacy of Milton K. Wong, the deceased businessman and philanthropist commented on the long-term effects of the internment of 22,000 Japanese Canadians. Wong, who grew up in nearby Chinatown, suggested that this event drained the community’s energy, setting the stage for the long-term decline of the Downtown Eastside.

      Despite the magnitude of the losses, Hamilton said that after the war, Japanese Canadians still opened their hearts to poor people in the neighbourhood. “We get to have political meetings at the Japanese Hall,” she said. “The Sisters of Atonement originally had all the Japanese Canadian nuns. They always served the bread line to the poor people in the Downtown Eastside. All my friends lived in the area, my school friends, they went to Japanese school at the Japanese Hall.”

      In recent years, Hamilton has witnessed how cooks at the annual Powell Street Festival have fed poor people in the neighbourhood even when they had no money to pay.

      “The Powell Street Festival is not just a party,” Hamilton declared. “It’s rooted in history. It’s Vancouver history and that just can’t be whitewashed… The Japanese Canadian community has always been allies to the homeless population and also to addressing homelessness.”

      That’s why Hamilton is saddened to see that the Powell Street Festival, which celebrates Japanese Canadian art and culture, has moved out of Oppenheimer Park in response to a tent city on the grounds. The spokesperson for the protest, Brody Williams, told the Straight that campers won’t leave until Mayor Gregor Robertson keeps a 2008 campaign promise to end homelessness.

      The festival has traditionally used the entire park, with food stands extending onto Jackson Avenue, but that won’t occur this year. On July 24, the society that puts on the festival issued a statement acknowledging that the park is on unceded Coast Salish territory. For this reason, the society “does not support the removal order or the threat of removal of residents in the park in any way”.

      As a result, the 38th annual Powell Street Festival will cover four city blocks along Jackson Avenue from Cordova Streeet to Railway Street, and along Alexander Street between Dunlevy and Princess avenues. The Diamond Stage will be on Alexander Street east of Dunlevy Avenue, which is in historic Japantown. It takes place from 11:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. from Friday (August 1) to Sunday (August 3).

      It’s not the first time the festival has relocated. But it still troubles Hamilton because colleagues in her political party, the Coalition of Progressive Electors, have supported the homeless protest and don’t see a problem with the Powell Street Festival having to abandon Oppenheimer Park to accommodate the tent city.

      “Why would that issue trump another community’s history of welcoming everyone to celebrate together as allies, as communities in solidarity, as friends?” Hamilton asked.

      She added that she feels far more comfortable attending the Powell Street Festival than the “corporate Pride” parade, even though she participated in the city’s first Pride march in 1979.

      “To me, the Japanese festival is really grounded in community,” Hamilton said.




      Jul 30, 2014 at 1:33pm

      A couple of years ago, a young, very large Native man attacked my wife and I on Main Street as we were attempting to walk to a restaurant; when I asked him what's up, he said, "Ching chong, this is our land."

      I bring this up merely as a point of ilustration about who occupies Japantown now. Except for the church and the language school, it ain't the Japanese Canadians. They, uh, ceded the territory, if you will.

      I have nothing but respect for Powell Street organizers for trying to keep the festival going at Oppenheimer, but as they (probably) and I know, many Japanese Canadian elders won't even set foot there - they think their feet might meet a syringe.

      And when they got the redress settlement, did the Japanese Canadians build their museum and attached senior's care facility in historical Japantown? No, they went to Burnaby, where there is no historical connection but also no syringes to step on.

      It is nice of Jamie Lee Hamilton to speak well of the friends she and her mother made in the area, but the actual legacy of Japanese Canadians is NOT attachment to an area: it is about taking the hits of displacement and blatant racial discrimination, accepting it, and moving on.

      Sid Tan

      Jul 30, 2014 at 5:14pm

      My feeling is the leadership of Powell Street Festival Society is bold and courageous to recognize and accommodate the community action of Oppenheimer tent city. The PSF action speaks volumes about anti-gentrification, displacement and homeless policy that affects the Downtown Eastside. I am proud to be a member of COPE which supports the work of community activists.

      Imtiaz Popat

      Jul 30, 2014 at 6:27pm

      I echo Sid Tan's sentiment and really sad that Ms Jamie Lee Hamilton lack of respect for the Powell Street Festival public support for the tent city and choosing to move the festival. The public statement by Powell Street Festival Society is very clear and for anyone to tell them that they wrong for support the ten city is very insensitive and misplaced. Many of us, marched in the first ever Downtown East Village Pride Parade from Crab Park to Oppenheimer Park along with the leadership of the Greater Vancouver Native Cultural Society, including Japanese Canadians, South Asians, Chinese and many other communities. We celebrated a very non-corporate pride along with the ten city campers. I wish Jamie Lee was there to to see how much support the tent city really has from the community. Many of including Japanese Canadian volunteer at the tent city and are also very close friends and supporters of the Powell Street Festival. We very proud of their public support for the tent city.

      Good to see!

      Jul 30, 2014 at 8:23pm

      God to see Jamie Lee hasn't let being elected to the COPE executive board prevent her from running them down in public!


      Jul 31, 2014 at 2:41pm

      I'm really going to miss sitting on the grass watching the Sumo tournament like i've done for so many years. This event has now been moved indoors to the Japanese Hall.

      Anyways the PSF is responding in a compassionate way to a difficult situation.
      This is what communities do-they support & accommodate each other each other.


      Aug 1, 2014 at 10:19am

      RUK: The legacy of the entire Japanese Canadian community can be many things but the legacy and spirit of the PSF is very much connected to the neighborhood. The concerns of the aforementioned elderly are heard but thru 37 years (the longest continuous community based arts/culture fest in the city), I do not believe there have been any incidents to make those fears a reality and 15,000+ annual go'ers from the Japanese Community and beyond cant be wrong.

      Especially in light of the recent concerns for the loss of spaces with community/art/cultural ties in Vancouver, I'm pretty proud to be a part of an organization that has stuck it out in the DTES and has attracted thousands of goers from 1977 to today and has remained community based throughout 38 years later. This year is an even greater example in my opinion. You should come down this weekend btw! ;)

      The new location map is here, full out block party style:


      Aug 2, 2014 at 2:12pm

      I have lived in the DTES across from Oppenheimer Park now for 8 years. In my time here, I have seen 2 large homelessness related protests in the park. The 1st, was really well received by the locals, was quiet, and peaceful. I don't recall the cops being called too often, if ever to deal with rowdiness.

      This current one however, is overwhelmingly opposed by the locals. The "leeches" (phrased by a local business owner and I think it fits) there this time are NOT homeless people in need of a place to stay. They are professional problem causers. They don't care about the homeless issue as much as they care about being a nuisance to anyone in a position of authority. The police are called to the park a few times a day, just yesterday the cops were in the park dealing with 1 matter when some of them had to leave that to go engage 4 adults in a fist fight not even 100 feet from where they were on an unrelated matter. This is what Oppenheimer Park is like daily now. Frustrating part is, that fist fight would have gone unattended if the cops had not already been there, because they have taken on their OWN pro-bedlam policy. Don't enforce laws in the park unless it is potentially life threatening. Even if there is a witness, and photo evidence of the crime, they refuse to arrest anyone that's at the part.

      It really disappoints me the Powell Street festival did not use this opportunity to have this gang removed. The city has yearned for a serious reason to disband these hooligans, and the PSF really was going to be their chance. Instead, the festival, which is a massive inconvenience to people in the area surrounding it, rolled over and let the bullies win.

      Quite disappointing that our government refuses to deal with them. Quite disappointing that the Police will only get involved there for "serious matters". But it is really disappointing that the PSF is supporting hooliganism, public drunkenness and disobeying laws & rules and are allowing this protest to fester. They had a chance to squish this problem, instead they have helped it spread.


      Aug 2, 2014 at 9:55pm


      I went. Great salmon! Very good last minute transition to the new street venue.

      Hey, I'll keep coming and I understand that next year I might be playing there again. I'm not against the Powell Street Festival. I'm just not, in general, someone who wants to be where I'm not wanted.