The Downtown Eastside is in mourning after Tracey Morrison passed away on Friday (July 15).
The Ojibwe woman was president of the Western Aboriginal Harm Reduction Society (WAHRS) and an active member of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU). Since 2012, she was also increasingly involved in housing issues. She represented WAHRS on a city planning committee and, especially in recent years, became a vocal advocate for tenants’ rights for residents living in the Downtown Eastside’s shabby SRO hotels.
Jean Swanson, a friend of Morrison’s and a 2016 recipient of the Order of Canada, told the Straight that Morrison positioned her very existence as a challenge to prejudices and inequalities that remain inherent in society and the status quo.
“She always introduced herself by saying, ‘I am an Indigenous woman and I am poor and I am a drug user’,” Swanson told the Straight. “Right there, she listed four categories of discrimination. And often, governments don’t do what should be done to people because someone is a women or because they are Indigenous or because they are poor or because they are a user. They are considered undeserving. And Tracey was right there, with her brilliant, bright personality, saying, ‘Here I am. I am a living, wonderful human being, and you need to treat me right.’
“She really tackled the idea of governments treating people as lesser-than because of various issues,” Swanson continued.
“The lesson from her is, if we can stop discriminating against people, we will eliminate the rationale for government inequality.”
Karen Ward, another friend of Morrison’s and a long-time VANDU member, remembered five words that she heard Morrison say many times over the years.
“Nothing about us without us,” Ward said.
“She would try to explain to the people she met and encountered from health authorities and governments and experts of various kinds, that in her understanding of her role, that she was the expert. That her voice mattered.”
Wendy Pedersen, a community organizer with the Carnegie Community Action Project (CCAP) who worked with Morrison on housing issues, recounted a personal memory that she said underscores the friendly touch that Morrison brought to her work as an activist.
“I had a heart attack in 2012—a minor one—and so during the Downtown Eastside local area planning process at the city, I wasn’t able to make it to the council meeting,” Pedersen said. Morrison was there and had been given a few minutes to address the room.
“Tracey knew that I was watching on my laptop at home and during her speech, the first thing she said was, ‘I just want to say, I know Wendy is watching us at home and I want to say, hi Wendy!’” Pedersen said, laughing. “She used up 10 precious seconds of her speech to make me feel like I was included there in the gang.”
Ward recalled that it was during the same planning process that she first got to know Morrison and learned of a dream she held to bring an aboriginal health and wellness centre to the Downtown Eastside.
Today, that dream is moving slowly on a path to realization.
Earlier this month, the City of Vancouver published a report about the idea. It begins with an essay that was written by Morrison about B.C.’s overdose crisis, which this year is on track to kill more than 1,500 people. The essay, which Morrison wrote last December, is titled, “Sad Siren’s Song”.
“When I hear the sad song of sirens that ring in my neighbourhood every day—all day long—I am dreading the story I will hear if this person has made it or not,” it begins. “This emergency crisis of overdoses and death has taken its toll here, in this city that I love so much. It is inconceivable. So hard to understand why can’t this problem be helped or solved? Why isn’t what we are doing working? The lights of emergency vehicles aren’t what I want to see on every block.
“I believe that the war on the poor has a lot to do with this,” the essay continues. “The laws need to change. That is pipe dream. Instead we as a society, and residents of the DTES [Downtown Eastside], need to ally together to create positive changes in the here and now. I know in writing this call to action, it is not going to change much. But for me, it’s a start. First, I am going to send this plea to everyone I know: all organizations and their varying levels of stakeholders, directors, colleagues, and friends.
“I want to also acknowledge that all the unsung heroes in our community who are doing their part. And yet, the sirens still call. More must be done. So I ask you to question yourself, “How can I help?” We need everyone, not just the people who reside in the DTES, but all of greater Vancouver, the province of B.C., and right on through across Canada. All levels of government, all non-profits, health authorities like VCH [Vancouver Coastal Health] and First Nations Health Authority (FNHA), the Vancouver Police Department, and housing agencies of all kinds, etc., they all must get on board. That is all I truly want for Christmas, for all to ally together. Stop the drug war. Stop the war on the poor. We must all work together and help our people who are some of the most criminalized, stigmatized, and marginalized, all living here in the DTES. We have the right to live.”