Author Tags: Alcohol, Anthropology, First Nations, Women

In January of 1979, Renee Smith, an 11-year-old Nimpkish Indian, died of a ruptured appendix in Alert Bay. Aboriginal ative people claimed the town's one (white) physician, Dr. Jack Pickup, was an alcoholic who mistreated Aboriginal patients. Within the tiny coastal community, where inter-racial marriages are common, the tragedy had complex and divisive reverberations for years. “People began a petition on the death as a medical issue,” recalls Dara Culhane Speck, who was a white member of the Nimpkish Band by marriage. “But the situation became politicized very quickly when the government and medical agencies responded to the petitioners as Indians.” Culhane Speck, a UBC anthropologist and sociologist, was living in Alert Bay during the two years of inquiries into Renee Smith's death. The title of her book, An Error in Judgement: The Politics of Medical Care in an Indian/ White Community (1987), is derived from conclusions reached by the B.C. College of Physicians and Surgeons who surmised Dr. Pickup had made “a regrettable and serious error in judgement.” The Alert Bay controversy escalated until the Goldthorpe Inquiry for the Dept. of National Health and Welfare ultimately recommended that Dr. Pickup should resign. Relatively powerless as a federal inquirer into B.C. medical affairs, Dr. Goldthorpe mainly succeeded in changing the situation in Alert Bay by establishing a new health centre on the Reserve which-ironically-copes primarily with the problem of alcohol abuse amongst Indians.

”Nothing structurally has changed,” said Culhane Speck. Dr. Pickup, a physician in Alert Bay since 1949, continued to practice at Alert Bay's antiquated St. George's Hospital. In her book, Culhane Speck tried to look beyond personalities to illuminate the broader historical and societal frameworks of the native health care system in B.C. “The field of medical anthropology tends to focus on what is unique or exotic about native health,” she wrote, as a Ph.D. student at UBC. “Very little analysis is done on what extent the dependency on medical care plays a role in producing native health problems. When the Native person presents himself for treatment, the microscope is always focused in one direction. You have to look at both sides of the relationship.” Culhane Speck examined the Alert Bay tragedy in the context of the village's history and the last century of Aboriginal/White relations in B.C. The Kwakiutl District Council recommended her book as “daringly accurate.” UBC law professor Michael Jackson wrote in his foreword, “In this book we are given... an opportunity to understand racism from the inside out.”

Daughter of prison rights activitist and anti-war organizer Claire Culhane, Dara Culhane Speck was Deputy Director of Social and Cultural Research for the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples from 1992 to 1994. She received her Ph.D. in 1994 and has changed her name back to Dara Culhane. As an anthropologist at Simon Fraser University, she has examined Gitksan and Wet'suwet'en land claims from 1987 to 1991 for The Pleasure of the Crown: Anthropology, Law and First Nations (1998), a book that includes a synopsis of the Supreme Court decision — known as the Delgamuukw ruling — that verified Aboriginal title to land does exist, but that the title is not absolute and may be infringed upon by government for economic development and settlement. “The Supreme Court's ruling in the appeal of Delgamuukw v. Regina is specifically directed to treaty negotiations in B.C.” says Culhane. “As a result, Aboriginal people in this province have a new 'edge' in their struggle.”

For her third book, Dara Culhane has followed the Downtown Eastside documentary tradition pioneered by Sheila Baxter and co-edited seven ‘life stories’ of women who share their diverse histories for In Plain Sight: Reflections on Life in Downtown Eastside Vancouver (2005), with Leslie Robertson. "I feel we accomplished what we set out to do," she told SFU News. "We created a space where they could represent themselves." The book was an offshoot of a five-year project on women's health and housing in the Downtown Eastside, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council for which Culhane was they principal investigator. In Plain Sight was shortlisted for the 2005 City of Vancouver Book Award and received the George Ryga Award For Social Awareness in BC Writing and Publishing in 2006. [See Review and Press Release below]

Review of the author's work by BC Studies:
An Error in Judgement: The Politics of Medical Care in an Indian/White Community
In Plain Sight: Reflections on Life in Downtown Eastside Vancouver
The Pleasure of the Crown: Anthropology, Law and First Nations


Culhane Speck, Dara. An Error in Judgement: The Politics of Medical Care in an Indian / White Community (Talonbooks, 1987).
Culhane, Dara. The Pleasure of the Crown: Anthropology, Law and First Nations (Talonbooks, 1998).
Robertson, Leslie & Dara Culhane (editors). In Plain Sight (Talonbooks, 2005).
Elliott, Denielle & Dara Culhane (editors). A Different Kind of Ethnography: Imaginative Practices and Creative Methodologies (U of Toronto, 2016)

[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2006]

IN PLAIN SIGHT Seven pseudonyms
Article (2005)

from BCBW
In order to reach beyond restrictive and often de-humanizing media representations of the Downtown Eastside, Leslie Robertson and Dara Culhane have collected the stories of seven women for In Plain Sight: Reflections On Life In Downtown Eastside Vancouver (Talonbooks 18.95).

To respect privacy and preserve the women’s safety, the two academic editors have ironically opted to present their Plain Sight informants as surnameless and faceless. The seven narrators chose their own pseudonyms.

Here they speak for themselves:

Raised in a white, middle-class family on the west side of Vancouver, Tamara first began using and dealing drugs recreationally. Slowly her life became consumed by heavy drug use. “I always had a thousand bucks cash on me. I remember being stopped by these cops for a seat belt. It was some stupid ticket just to harass me. They knew I had money, and they knew I was probably dealing. I couldn’t see that then, I thought it was just harassment. But I remember this cop wanting to count my money. The cops that brought me in made this other cop count everything, every last penny at the bottom of my purse. I had 999 dollars and ninety-four cents. They attached a little note. ‘We couldn’t see you leaving with such an odd amount. We put a collection together, put six cents in.’ (Laughing) I walked out with a thousand.”

Pawz, a victim of domestic abuse who, in an attempt to escape from her husband, took refuge in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. “I had a child who passed away. I was almost murdered. I was raped. I’ve had all these bad things happen; yet I don’t want to say I’m unhappy to be alive.”

A Salish First Nations, Dee grew up on a reserve, but was forced to move to Vancouver when her mother lost her job. A drug user and sex worker, she has experienced the dangers of being an Aboriginal woman in the sex trade. “It’s really hard to get out of the unclean feeling of having to be a prostitute. I still have my regulars, but when I go out there and look at the street, it’s nothing to hold your head up high about. It’s a dirty rotten occupation. I’ve never liked it.”

Sara grew up in a physically, sexually and mentally abusive home. After working the streets in Alberta, she moved to Vancouver to avoid a domineering pimp. “For once, I get to say my piece. I’ve done a lot of interviews on this and that around my life, around things from downtown like the missing women. A lot of stuff that I said was taken out of context or wasn’t portrayed properly, and in the end it looked like non-truths. So this is finally my chance to say something and for it to be accurate.”

Born in Edmonton, Black Widow started “doing lines” when she was thirteen. After spending some time in jail, she followed her ex-husband to Vancouver where he had taken her kids. “I’ve led my life the way I’ve led my lifeI don’t know if I’ve made all the right decisions, but I really don’t think I’m a bad person. I don’t steal; I don’t lie. I’m not a selfish person. I’m not a self-centred person. Maybe when I’m gone, maybe somebody can read something about me.”

A Cree native of Regina, Laurie was raised by foster parents in Saskatoon. She moved to Vancouver in her 20s where she began to participate in heavy drug use and trafficking. “Drug addicts have an image, too. Yeah, we have an image. Even down here we’ve got low-class, middle-class, and high-class; you have the dope and you’re up there. But what we don’t have is people rallying around usIt’s like when Gordon Campbell said, ‘I’m just a social drinker.’ If I ever get busted again I’m going to say, ‘I’m just a social addict.’”

Also Laurie: “They tried for a long, long time to get girls to move even farther down by the bridge, to almost underneath the railroad tracks. It’s not well lit and there’s nothing around there, so if you scream nobody’s going to hear you. It’s deserted and the girls wouldn’t go. Police were literally following you in their car at, like, two miles an hour, until you walked all the way down there. They wanted us to work underneath where it’s industrial, where it’s deserted and dark, and where nobody’s around to say squat.”

Soon after receiving her degree in therapy, Anne suffered a series of mental health breakdowns. She now lives with her child on the Downtown Eastside where she struggles with poverty and the stigma of mental illness. “We might be recovering addicts, we might be recovering alcoholics, we might be recovering from a number of different things. That doesn’t take away anything from out ability to be great mothers.” That’s what I want people to know. I want people to know that we’re intelligent, thoughtful and insightful people who care for our children.”

ISBN 0-88922-513-3

In Plain Sight
Press Release (2006)

This year’s winning book for The George Ryga Award For Social Awareness in BC Writing and Publishing has been won by Talonbooks’ In Plain Sight: Reflections On Life In Downtown Eastside Vancouver, edited by Leslie Robertson and Dara Culhane.

Runner-up manuscripts were Stanley Park’s Secret, by Jean Barman (Harbour Publishing) and Vanishing British Columbia, by Michael Kluckner (UBC Press and The University Of Washington Press).

In choosing In Plain Sight as this year’s winner, internationally renowned journalist Myrna Kostash wrote, “We will never know the whole of the “real” lives told in this book, but with exemplary honesty and a great deal of tenderness both toward their wounded sisters and brothers and themselves, the women of In Plain Sight have taken us into their confidence and given us a look. We owe them a debt of gratitude.”

Kostash goes on to make the connection, even, between these writers and Ryga himself: “When George Ryga imagined the life of an Aboriginal woman who, full of hope, comes to the city only to die on its Skid Row, he wrote The Ecstasy of Rita Joe. He brought her to the Canadian stage in 1967 in a powerful mix of song, dance, dialogue and montage, as though no single genre could contain her life. Rita Joe became, and remains, one of the emblematic characters of the twentieth-century Canadian literary and social imagination.”

“Forty years on, I think of her again, as I read with mounting admiration the chorus of voices, brought together and edited by Leslie Robertson and Dara Culhane, which collectively narrate In Plain Sight: Reflections on Life in Downtown Eastside Vancouver. And I think of George Ryga. Coming from poverty and hardship on a hard-scrabble farm in northern Alberta, self-taught, a writer who struggled to live both as an artist and a self-proclaimed “artist in resistance,” I think Ryga would have liked nothing better than to sit down in an eastside café with any of these women – Laurie, Anne, Sara, Dee, Pawz, Black Widow, Tamara – and hear them out, just as we readers are able to do, who open this wonderful book. When Anne says, “I hope people learn that poverty and mental illness are just factors in people’s lives, they don’t define human beings,” Ryga would have nodded in perfect solidarity.”

The Award will be presented to the writers and the publisher in a gala award ceremony, hosted by CBC’s Paul Grant It will feature an award-winning performance of Portrait Of A Lady, with Dorian Kohl as Hagar Shipley from Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel. This particular script was adapted from the novel for radio by George Ryga himself, and later provided with dramaturgy by Michael Cook and directed by Ken Smedley. The Gala Award Evening will take place in Vernon’s Powerhouse Theatre on Thursday, July 27th. The winners will once again be presented with The Censor’s Golden Rope, a unique piece of sculpture recreated annually by Armstrong sculptor Reg Kienast.

The George Ryga Award is sponsored by The George Ryga Centre, Okanagan College, BC BookWorld and CBC Radio One, Kelowna.