VANCOUVER – Service providers and women from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside marked International Women’s Day on Monday this week at a lunch sponsored by CUPE Metro Vancouver District Council. The lunch was emcee’d by Sheryl Burns, vice-president of CUPE 1936, who welcomed the more than 150 women.
Squamish Band Elder Barbara Charlie welcomed everyone to Lil’wat, Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh territory. She spoke a beautiful traditional blessing that she wrote in honour of women and the event. Charlie shared her story as a grandmother of 20 and great grandmother of three, talking about personal challenges and encouraging the audience to “carry on as strongly as you have been.” She reminded everyone, “Together we are strong.”
CUPE Metro vice-president Cindy McQueen told the audience they were the “strength of the downtown eastside.” McQueen spent much of her youth growing up on Vancouver’s downtown eastside. Although many things are different today, McQueen acknowledged the important role of women in making changes. She thanked the event organizers saying, “You can always count on labour women – when they say they’re going to do something – they get it done.”
NDP Mount Pleasant MLA Jenny Kwan told the crowd that the issues remain the same as when she was a legal advocate in the 90s – affordable housing, safety, and economic and social security. Kwan spoke passionately about the shameful record of the Liberal government on poverty and the ongoing cuts to non-profits and programs that impact women and children, particularly those most vulnerable. For the sixth year in a row, B.C. has the worst poverty rate for children. “Investing in people has to be the first priority of government, and investing in people with the most need should come first,” said Kwan. “The fight has not ended.”
NDP Vancouver-Kensington MLA Mabel Elmore, the first Philippino woman elected in B.C., a long-time activist and former bus driver with the Canadian Union of Auto Workers Local 111, noted that we’re celebrating the tenth anniversary of International Women’s Day. “Women from all countries and ages are coming together for a common struggle,” said Elmore. “We will work together from our hearts.” Elmore pledged to continue to hold the Liberal government accountable every day in the Legislature.
The final speaker was Rosa Arteaga from Battered Women’s Support Services, who provide services to 8,000 women annually. Arteaga said that the issue of violence against women is complex, social and political, and the most pressing issue of our time. She commented that there was a lot of wisdom in the room and that we need to fight together. “We are doing amazing work that we need to keep doing. But we need to address that the system is not responding to the needs of women,” said Arteaga. She said that one in three women will experience abuse at least once in their lives. “Men need to break the silence. We need more women politicians.”
Following the speakers, Arlette Alcock, Metis singer/songwriter and CUPE 15 member, was joined by Joyce Arthur from “Joyce and the Jaguars” and together they gave a powerful, soulful performance of Alcock’s original material. They also led the audience in the singing of “Bread and Roses”. Next up on the stage were mother and daughter duo Cherelle Jardine and AJ Bureyko aka “The Jardines”, who recently opened for the Olympics at the Olympic Main Stage in Minoru Park in Richmond. Their alternative country roots music was thoroughly enjoyed by all.
Many women participated at the Handkerchief Art table set up by Randi Gurholt-Seary where women wrote messages on handkerchiefs based on the theme of Women’s struggles and tears of sorrow and joy. Many illustrated the napkins and wrote encouraging words of support for their sisters.
When the event was over, Sarah Bjorknas from CUPE 23 accompanied women who had been driven to the event in a chartered bus back again to the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre and Carnegie Community Centre. Many at the event said that they hoped this would be the first annual event of CUPE Metro Vancouver’s celebration of International Women’s Day.