Last winter, Vancouver lost a tenacious opponent of injustice and prejudice.
After dedicating most of her life to righting what is wrong, Jamie Lee Hamilton passed away two days before Christmas.
Hamilton, a transgender woman of Metis and Cree heritage, particularly cared for sex workers, LGBT people, and the poor. She also wanted to free captive caetaceans.
This summer, an advisory body with the city approved adding her name as one of the choices to designate a civic asset in the future.
It could be a street, lane, development area or an infrastructure in the future.
Local historian John Atkin, co-chair of the civic asset naming committee, informed the Georgia Straight that Hamilton’s name was reserved for a yet to be identified place in the Downtown Eastside.
It is a matter of where and when.
In 1997, Hamilton dumped 67 pairs of stiletto-heeled shoes on the front steps of city hall to call attention to missing and mostly Indigenous women from the Downtown Eastside.
Five years later, a pig farmer from Port Coquitlam was arrested and charged for the death of women from the empoverished Vancouver neighbourhood.
For many years, Hamilton collaborated with Becki Ross, a professor at UBC’s Department of Sociology and Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality, and Social Justice.
In 2019, the two became the first co-winners of the Angus Reid Practitioners/Applied Sociology Award by the Canadian Sociological Association.
The award recognized their work in memorializing sex workers expelled from the city’s West End neighbourhood during the 1980s.
These workers included Hamilton. Many ended up in the Downtown Eastside, where they were preyed upon by a serial killer.
When sought for comment, Ross said that naming a civic asset after Hamilton would be an “important gesture”.
She described her late friend as a “fierce advocate for impoverished people, for Indigenous people, for trans people, and for sex workers”.
“She was at the forefront of a confluence of very important community struggles, and had membership in all of those struggles,” Ross told the Straight in a phone interview.
According to Ross, she doesn’t know if there that many people that one can describe as having played the role Hamilton did for 50 years.
“She died at 64, but she was really becoming politically active in her teens,” the UBC academic-activist said.
Ross said that Hamilton can be recognized “anywhere in the city” because it would be “beneficial for everyone to know who she was”.
“She was always on the right side of history,” Ross said.
However, Ross also noted that the West End has always been Hamilton’s “spiritual home”.
“That’s where she rented apartments in the 1970s and the early 80s until the violent expulsion in 1984,” Ross recalled.
The sociologist was referring to a court order that expelled sex workers from the neighbourhood.
“It was her dream for 35 years to return to the West End, and she was only able to materialize that dream by being able to be accepted into the Mole Hill community in July 2019,” Ross said.
Hamilton lived at Mole Hill for five months before she died of cancer.
“That is the tragedy because she worked for 35 years to get back to her home, which was the West End,” Ross said.
In 2008, Hamilton and Ross formed the West End Sex Workers Memorial Committee.
Eight years later, a memorial unveiled near the corner of Jervis and Pendrell streets, in front of St. Paul's Anglican Church.
Before her death on December 23, 2019, Hamilton expressed her wish for her celebration of life to be done at this church.
The celebration was held on January 25 this year, with Ross delivering the eulogy.
Hamilton and Ross also led walking tours to recall the once vibrant sex workers community in the West End.
In a paper co-written by the two collaborators, Hamilton described the “golden era” of sex work in the neighbourhood.
It wasn’t survival sex work, but prostitution as a culture. Practitioners thrived, protected each other, and contributed to the community.
“We were a pimp-free zone,” Hamilton recounted in the paper.
“If a pimp came down,” she continued, “we’d tell him to put on some lipstick and suck cock like the rest of us.”
According to Ross, Hamilton felt glad when the City of Vancouver named some lanes in the neighbourhood after local historical figures.
One of these lanes is near St. Paul’s Anglican Church, which now bears the name of See-em-ia, an Indigenous woman.
Recalling a conversation with her friend, Ross said: “She mentioned how extraordinary it would be to be remembered in that way.”