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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The death and life of Aboriginal women in postwar Vancouver Longstaffe, Meghan Elizabeth


Violence against indigenous women in Canada is endemic. Through a case study of postwar Vancouver, this paper situates this ongoing violence in its historical context. In the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, countless Aboriginal women died on the streets and in the cheap rooming houses and hotels of Vancouver’s downtown eastside. These women died from the effects of poverty, alcoholism, drug abuse, tuberculosis, and malnutrition, but too often their deaths were hastened by brutal assaults, rape, and murder. Although it took place in Vancouver’s very recent past, this story is remarkably absent from literature in Aboriginal history, women’s history, and postwar Canadian history. Using a feminist and anti-racist analysis of a public discourse about Aboriginal women, this paper examines the grave extent of racial and sexual violence against Aboriginal women during these decades. During the postwar period, Vancouver’s Aboriginal population increased significantly, generating an anxious public discourse about the changing face of the city. This discourse, which appeared regularly in mainstream venues such as newspapers, civic reports, and social work theses, supported a narrative about Native women living and dying on Vancouver’s skid road. Central to this narrative was a portrait of the “dead Indian girl,” telling a fatalistic story of poverty, discrimination, loneliness, alcoholism, prostitution, rape, and death in the city. Using paternalistic language, this narrative infantilized and victimized Aboriginal women, but it was, nonetheless, designed to generate public attention. In response to this crisis, private organizations and concerned individuals established the Vancouver Indian Centre and several hostels for Aboriginal women; they thought that these facilities would keep women off the streets, and therefore, prevent further death on skid road. Yet despite these efforts, racial and sexual violence against Aboriginal women would continue.

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