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Jean Swanson's Advocacy for Vancouver's Impoverished

Decades of activism in the Downtown Eastside earned her the People's Order of BC from Tyee readers. Last in a series.

Ben Christopher 10 Sep

Ben Christopher is a journalist now based in San Francisco who has been a frequent contributor to The Tyee. Read his previous Tyee stories here.

Jean Swanson doesn't sound like a rabble-rouser. Her voice on the phone is quiet, cautious, self-deprecating. A mainstay among anti-poverty activists in Vancouver who has spent 38 years sparring with property developers, SRO-managers and politicians, Swanson tells me that she's reluctant to be interviewed.

"I'm getting older and the folks that are doing the great work are younger," she says. "It would be neat if you would profile them instead of me." She offers me a few phone numbers.

Since the mid-1970s, Swanson has organized and advocated in the defence of Canada's least defended -- all the while eschewing cultivation of her own celebrity.

"She's very quiet, very focused on results," says Emily Mayne, who first met Swanson at a Raise the Rates meeting in the early 2000s before going on to work with her for the next eight years. As much disposition as principle, she says, Swanson has always preferred to "step aside and let others take the limelight."

Last fall, Swanson was one of five reader-nominated British Columbians to receive the People's Order of B.C., voted by Tyee readers.

Mayne cast her vote for Swanson. She calls the choice a "no brainer."

"People need to know what a valuable resource she is," says Mayne. "You try to thank her and tell her how important she is, but she doesn't want to hear it. It's never been about her. She's always working. Jean is out there everyday."

'Good work'

As Swanson recounts it, she fell into the world of activism and community organization over the course of an evening in 1974. She was waitressing at the Patricia Hotel at the time, "slinging beer" to the regulars in the dingy ground floor pub of the East Hastings SRO. This wasn't work she was particularly proud of. Her boss was constantly pressuring her to "load up" the tables -- aggressively topping up the customers to keep them plastered in their seats and running up a tab until last call.

But pride in one's job wasn't something Swanson felt entitled to. The 31-year-old was just scraping by.

Born in New York state, Swanson spent most of her childhood bumping around America's West Coast. Her father, a mining prospector, was constantly shuffling his family around in search of work and Swanson recalls a lonely childhood. There were years, she says, when she was attending upwards of three schools per year.

By the time she'd moved to Canada and years later ended up working at the Patricia, Swanson was the mother of two daughters. One was born with a heart defect and Swanson knew she couldn't afford the necessary medical coverage back in the U.S. She had no plans grander than meeting next month's rent.

Then one evening during Swanson's shift, Bruce Eriksen and Libby Davies walked into the hotel bar. Swanson knew about Eriksen; she'd seen him on television, protesting safety conditions at hotels around the neighbourhood -- a neighbourhood that most everyone but he and his colleagues at the recently formed Downtown Eastside Residents' Association (DERA) still called Skid Row.

But Swanson had also received plenty of warning from her boss about DERA and its mercurial president. Loading up tables was a violation of provincial liquor law and Eriksen was known to report offenders.

Swanson approached the couple to check Davies' ID and the three got to talking.

"It seemed like he was doing good work," Swanson says now. "I didn't know that that kind of work existed. I just knew that I had a rotten life and that it would be nice to do something that made sense."

A few weeks later, Swanson spotted Eriksen eating lunch at the nearby Ovaltine Café. In an act of brashness that she now calls "one of the smartest things I ever did," she walked up to Eriksen's table and asked for a job. A few weeks later, Swanson, who'd been the editor of her high school newspaper over a decade earlier, started work at DERA's monthly paper, the Downtown East.

With, not for

Swanson downplays her role at DERA. Putting together the paper now seems so antiquated. "We were gluing down the columns with hot wax," she says, laughing.

By all other accounts, Swanson was doing much more than operating a glue gun during the organization's foundational years. As the best writer of the three, she assumed the role of DERA's secretary, with Davies managing the funds and Eriksen soldiering on as front man and street organizer.

On its face, the trio's project seemed an unlikely one. In a neighbourhood that the rest of the city had written off, the mission of the residents' association was to get the community politically engaged and advocating on its own behalf.

Working with, rather than on behalf of the members of a community is an approach to activism that Blair Redlin says he recognized when working with Swanson in the late 1980s.

"She isn't just talking about poverty and she isn't dealing with these issues as a matter of charity," says Redlin, who now works as a researcher for CUPE. "She has always worked with lower income people."

Speaking over the phone from Vernon, Emily Mayne agrees. Mayne, who often crossed paths with Swanson while working at the Kettle Friendship Society throughout the 2000s, says she was struck by the bond between Swanson and the residents of the neighbourhood.

"If you go out onto the street in the Downtown Eastside, you can ask: everyone will know her," says Mayne. "She works with the people in the community who are most affected. So who cares if people in Kits don't know about her?"

Living room of the Downtown Eastside

During Swanson's tenure at DERA, the ranks of the organization swelled to some three thousand residents across the Downtown Eastside in 1980. During that same period DERA campaigned for and won a community centre built in the Downtown Eastside.

Up until that point, says Swanson, "the beer parlors were the community centres" of the Downtown Eastside. By design, the single room hotels did not provide communal space to tenants. Especially in inclement weather, she says, there were few places where neighbour could meet neighbour without the temptation or obligation to drink or fix.

It was a seven-year fight to secure what many have since called the living room of the Downtown Eastside. Swanson helped stave off commercial developers, wrangle politicians and design a workable solution. Finally, on Jan. 20, 1980, the once defunct and disregarded public library at the corner of Main and Hastings was reopened. The building was renamed the Carnegie Community Centre.

Political action, not charity

Swanson split with DERA in 1981, after the association lost its funding to keep its Secretary on the payroll. While Eriksen went on to win a seat on City Council at the beginning of the decade, followed two years later by Davies (Davies is now Swanson's MP as well as one of her close friends), Swanson spent the first half of the 1980s working "a few odd jobs," with a longer stint at the Hospital Employees' Union.

When Swanson finally returned to anti-poverty activism in 1985, it was with a more ambitious goal in mind. Spurred on by then premier Bill Bennett's "Restraint" reforms, British Columbia's rendition of the economic liberalization policies being introduced in Ottawa, Washington and London at the time, Swanson co-founded End Legislated Poverty (ELP). As implied by the name, ELP was an effort to fight social injustice at what Swanson considered to be social injustice's point of origin –- the halls of provincial assemblies and national parliaments.

"Jean's perspective is that we need to get at the root causes of poverty, which are the public policy decisions that favour people of high income and that favour corporations at the expense of the rest of us," says Redlin.

In practice, "getting at the root causes of poverty" meant campaigning for higher welfare rates, higher minimum wages, and protesting the drawing down of trade barriers with the United States. Redlin says he first worked with Swanson when the two were helping to organize the Coalition Against Free-Trade.

"Jean helped me understand the connection between issues like that and poverty," he says. "That the solution to poverty isn't charity. The solution is political action and policy change."

Swanson's own political action campaigning continued to expand in scope throughout the decade. In 1988, Swanson ran for mayor of Vancouver on a coalition left-of-centre ticket. She lost to Gordon Campbell.

Off the campaign trail, she spent those years continuing to work with the ELP, joining the National Anti-Poverty Organization (now called Canada Without Poverty) and served as co-chair of Action Canada Network, another anti-free trade organization. Swanson would go on to join the NAPO board of directors and to serve as the organization's national president for two years.

A 25-year partnership

It was also in 1985, the same year she formed the ELP, that Swanson met Sandy Cameron, a warm-natured teacher and seasonal prospector from Toronto. Despite his upper-middle class upbringing, Cameron had a strong affinity for the underdog and a sense of social justice to rival Swanson's. Before moving to Vancouver, he had been a teacher, working in prisons and in remote Reserve schools and spending his summers bushwhacking, logging and prospecting in Northern Ontario and the B.C. interior. After settling in Vancouver with Swanson, Cameron made himself the de facto historian and poet of the Downtown Eastside.

On a website Swanson created in memory of Cameron after his death, she describes their relationship as a "25-year partnership in life and social justice work."

"He came to all the demonstrations, edited every word I wrote, always talked to me about different strategies," says Swanson. "But he also slowed me down, helped me to lead a more balanced life."

Cameron died of pneumonia in October of 2010.

Against poor-bashing

In 1996, Swanson started writing a book against widespread assumptions about poverty and the poor that makes it morally permissible to engage in "poor-bashing."

Poor-bashing, as Swanson defines it, is both cultural and institutional. To believe that poverty is a matter of personal deficiency or that welfare only coddles the lazy is a kind of poor-bashing. But so too are the policies -- the cuts to financial assistance and social services -- that are justified by that belief.

Too much media media coverage, says Swanson, presents the the poor only as helpless and inept, as "sufferers and victims."

"You never portray the poor as intelligent human beings who might have answers to the situations that they find themselves in," she says.

If society were given a less slanted view of who the poor are and what it means to be poor, she says, good policy would follow. "When stereotypes can be challenged -- for example, when people understand how low the (welfare) rates are and that you can't live on that -- then reasonable people will come to reasonable conclusions."

She adds, "I guess I would just plea for people to actually consider ending poverty. We have the resources. We could do it."

Swanson published Poor-Bashing: The Politics of Exclusion in 2001, the same year she retired from ELP.

'The soul of Vancouver'

After a five-year hiatus, Swanson once again returned to social justice campaigning in 2006 when she took on the role of Co-ordinator of the Carnegie Community Action Project. Today, CCAP is considered one of the city's most vocal (and by its detractors, fanatical) advocacy organizations on housing and income issues in the Downtown Eastside.

Ivan Drury is a researcher and organizer at CCAP. Prior to going to work with Swanson two years ago, Drury says he knew of the veteran activist as "the Godmother of the neighbourhood."

"Sandy Cameron wrote a poem that called the Downtown Eastside 'the soul of Vancouver,' " says Drury. "I think that Jean exemplifies that because she carries that soul through the wisdom of her experience, having known so many people who have been involved in the struggle here for decades."

Wendy Pedersen is, like Drury, a CCAP researcher and organizer. And like Drury, Pedersen, who has worked at CCAP for the last six years "day and night," says she's found a "mentor" and an "elder" in Swanson.

"She's always encouraging us to remember to spend time with our families, to not burn out," says Pedersen. "Everyone might not agree with her, but everyone that she comes in contact with does respect her and what she does and how she does it."

Certainly, there are many that do not agree with Swanson. Particularly in trying to hold back the tide of private development, Swanson and CCAP's position that gentrification should be sharply curtailed, or made contingent on the expansion of supportive housing, has engendered some bad blood between the group and the city's political and economic leaders.

But speaking to Philip Owen, one of Swanson's erstwhile political adversaries from city hall, Pedersen's claim is born out. As mayor between 1993 and 2002, Owen, a political moderate and a former businessman with a market-oriented view of the world ("we've got more social housing units in Vancouver than in the whole bloody country," he laments), he extends to the soft-spoken activist a degree of respect denied to most of her current and former colleagues.

"She wasn't an off-the-wall nutbar," he says. "She didn't yell and scream and shout. She didn't give it to you that way. She gave it to you in a way so that you'd sit and listen. She did a good job."

Bad as it ever was

Looking at the Downtown Eastside today, Swanson's outlook is grim. Since she joined DERA in 1974, overall conditions in the neighbourhood have only deteriorated, she says.

"The housing situation in the SROs was bad (back then), but at least there was a vacancy rate and you could get in," she says. "Now you have all these gentrification pressures which are pushing people out."

Pressures, she says, like a shrinking of the affordable rental stock with each renovation, higher rents and negligible vacancy rates in the hotels. As a result, unlike in the 1970s, homelessness must now be counted among the many problems afflicting the neighbourhood.

Meanwhile, while the cost of living continues to rise, provincial welfare rates have not kept apace, falling in real terms from an inflation-adjusted $970 per month in 1981 to $610 today.

"People are literally starving," she says. "It's bad to have to resort to middle income people to tell your story about poverty, but when Jagrup Brar was living on $610, he lost 26 pounds."

Last winter, Raise the Rates, a coalition of anti-poverty groups also directed by Swanson, organized the "MLA Welfare Challenge." Brar, the provincial legislator from Surrey, survived for one month solely on the B.C. welfare allowance to illustrate its insufficiency.

Yet Swanson is able to summon some hope for the future of her neighbourhood, and for that she credits her colleagues.

Colleagues like Wendy Pederson and Ivan Drury, but also Diane Wood, Robert Bonner and Fraser Stewart. These are the people she first proposed I interview in her place.

"Seeing that there are younger people coming up who can do the work now -- that's the best part for me," Swanson says.

Ivan Drury laughed as he predicted Swanson "will hate" to learn she'd been voted an accolade by Tyee readers, even one as grassroots driven as the People's Order of B.C.

Recognition distracts from what Swanson thinks is more important and runs counter to her personality, he says. "She hates to be recognized as important or significant."

But Drury offers his own perspective. "Jean is a hero in the Downtown Eastside," he explains. "Jean is a hero now and she will be a hero no matter what it says in any media outlet. So it's not so much that you can declare her a hero. But you can recognize what's already common knowledge on the streets here."  [Tyee]

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