Can Vancouver Crack Feminism’s Diversity Problem?

One month after Vancouver's massive Women’s March on Washington, activists are trying to overcome their differences and keep the momentum going.

February 24, 2017

By Alia Dharssi / Photo: Alia Dharssi

The day after Donald Trump’s inauguration, 15,000 women, men and children flooded Vancouver streets to take part in the local Women’s March on Washington.

For many, it was a first brush with activism—the synchronized global effort generated a larger-than-expected turnout and an electric atmosphere that fuelled hope for resistance against the misogyny and racism inherent in Trump’s presidential campaign.

But not everyone felt welcome in the throng of pussy-hat-wearing, sign-waving protestors who snaked through downtown Vancouver. Tensions brewed on the sidelines as members of Black Lives Matter—Vancouver (BLM) voiced concerns, via a high-profile Facebook post on the eve of the march, that black and transgender women had not been invited to help organize or speak at the event.

When an apology or attempt to rectify the situation were not immediately forthcoming, some chose not to attend. Then, just hours after the march was over, the organizers sparked outrage by deleting a lively debate on the issue on the event’s Facebook page.

The exclusion of Black Lives Matter from Vancouver’s women’s march echoed roiling debates over race and feminism in marches held throughout North America.

What may seem to some like a trifling conflict on social media was for organizers—many of whom were new to the activist sphere—an abrupt introduction to the politics of race, class, and identity that have long posed a challenge to building a unified feminist movement. It’s also one that Vancouver’s feminists must overcome as they seek to capitalize on the momentum of the anti-Trump demonstrations and figure out what comes next.

The Whitewashed Face of Feminism

“The history of the women’s movement in the West has shown us those barriers can be very significant,” said Kasari Govender, executive director of West Coast LEAF, a legal advocacy group for women’s equality.

When modern feminism emerged in the second half of the twentieth century with a focus on reproductive rights, equal pay, job equity and anti-discrimination laws, the voices of white, upper-class women drowned out those of minorities. Never mind that they were more likely be paid less for the same work, live in poverty, have fewer job opportunities and face higher rates of sexual violence than wealthier white women.

For many women of colour, it was clear that gender cannot be seen in isolation; that the patriarchy cannot be distilled from race, class, sexual orientation and other factors that shape discrimination. Cue intersectionality. African-American lawyer and activist Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw coined the term in 1989 to describe how the experience of black women in the United States couldn’t be understood by separating gender and race.

For many women of colour, it was clear that gender cannot be seen in isolation; that the patriarchy cannot be distilled from race, class, sexual orientation and other factors that shape discrimination.

In Vancouver, the complex interplay between racism and sexism has been most prominent in the struggle to draw attention to the missing and murdered Indigenous women. For years, white middle-class feminists working on violence against women in Vancouver “were completely oblivious” to the magnitude of rape, sexual abuse and violence Indigenous women face, said Sunera Thobani, a gender expert at the University of British Columbia.

“It was the activism of Indigenous women that made this issue so big and placed it on the national agenda.”

More than 25 years ago, Vancouver’s Women’s Memorial March, which brings hundreds to the Downtown Eastside every Valentine’s Day, began, in part, as a reaction to “dehumanizing” media coverage of missing and murdered Aboriginal women.

Vancouver’s annual Women’s Memorial March began in 1991 as a response to the “dehumanizing” media portrayal of Aboriginal women.

Mabel Nipshank, who has been involved in the march since 1993, explained that news stories portrayed Indigenous women as addicts, prostitutes and homeless, while ignoring the history of colonialism, racism and poverty that made them easy prey for violence.

“We picked Valentine’s Day because we wanted to remember them with love,” she explained.

The march, which started in 1991 after a Coast Salish woman was murdered on Powell Street, has since expanded across Canada, drawing so much attention to missing and murdered women that it bolstered the call for a national inquiry. This year’s crowd included, Indian, Chinese, Black and Caucasian Vancouverites standing alongside Indigenous men and women in mourning.

Raising Awareness vs. Alienating Allies

Similarly, BLM’s reaction to their exclusion from the Women’s March had to do with the historical whitewashing of feminism. In fact, B.C.’s own history made the actions of the Women’s March organizers “really hurtful,” said BLM spokesperson Daniella Barreto after recalling that Hogan’s Alley, Vancouver’s historical black neighbourhood, was “wiped out” for the construction of the Georgia Viaduct in the 1960s.

“To live in Vancouver itself, as a black person, is a double-edged sword of hyper-visibility and being invisible too,” she explained. “We’re very noticed when we’re seen, but also our histories and our voices are so often erased.”

Vancouver’s Women’s March on Washington drew 15,000 people in January. But not everyone felt welcomed in the protest effort.

But the complexities of intersectionality can be hard to digest, even alienating those new to the feminist fold, and are often unheard of outside of academia and activist spheres. When BLM voiced disappointment in being overlooked as part of the Women’s March on Washington—and spurred a critical discussion on the event’s Facebook page—it felt like an attack to organizers, said Lisa Langevin, a member of the organizing committee and electrician who advocates for women in trade. Some of the women behind Vancouver’s march hadn’t previously identified as feminists, she said. They had pulled the event together in two-and-a-half weeks and reached out to Indigenous and minority women, though they overlooked BLM.

To live in Vancouver itself, as a black person, is a double-edged sword of hyper-visibility and being invisible too.”

Langevin believes the conversation BLM sparked with their initial Facebook post was important. But she deleted the conversation because people where chiming in with racist and threatening comments, she said.  “I didn’t have time to monitor the posts and I couldn’t turn off posting. There was no way to cut off the thread.” Her decision only made matters worse. BLM’s Barreto perceived it as “another act of erasing women of colour from the conversation,” but Langevin saw issues of class. “What struck me about some of the attacks, after I looked into them a little bit more, is a lot of them really were coming from the academic world,” she said. “And they were attacking blue-collar women who stepped up to try to help in a positive way with few resources and little knowledge.”

But, for Barreto, ignorance is not a valid excuse. “So many other women’s marches across the continent were talking about the issues (of race) before this happened in Vancouver,” she explained.

Finding a Way Forward

The Facebook debacle left at least one of the organizers in tears, said Langevin, who decided not to continue organizing with the Women’s March partly because of the divisive debate. Even so, the organizers, including Langevin, resolved to see it as a valuable learning experience. Four days after the march, they published an apology on Facebook. A few weeks later, two of them met with BLM to discuss how to move forward.

Then, exactly one month after Trump’s inauguration, Simon Fraser University hosted a public forum in which nine panelists, including black, Indigenous and trans women, discussed how local activists can be truly inclusive. A common theme was listening—that everyone can create a welcoming space if they pay attention to the needs of others.

Undoing the whitewashing of feminism without alienating those new to activism is a central issue as activists try to figure out what comes after the women’s march.

With a general strike planned for March 8, International Women’s Day, poised to channel momentum toward feminist causes in the United States, organizers of Vancouver’s march are trying to figure out how best to harness the energy of those newly galvanized to take action here.

“We’re constantly getting distracted and bombarded with new crappy things coming from the United States,” said Samantha Monckton, one of two Women’s March organizers leading the charge. “We need to do more than react.”

Right now, they are busy figuring out what to do with dozens of potential volunteers and giving other groups tips on how to pull off a big event.

Monckton says she hopes to put together an “intersectional” agenda, including a call for $10-a-day childcare in B.C. and support for reducing violence against Indigenous women. But getting everyone on the same page is, she admits, a tall order.

“We have to make sure we don’t put people off who want to step up,” she said. “Now is the time to capitalize on everybody’s good intentions.”

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