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Eastside life hits natives hardest. Community leaders say education and strong cultural links are the key to improvement

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    Eastside life hits natives hardest Community leaders say education and strong cultural links are the key to improvement By Cheryl Chan, The Province; With
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 7, 2009
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      Eastside life hits natives hardest
      Community leaders say education and strong cultural links are the key to
      improvement

      By Cheryl Chan, The Province; With files from Elaine O'Connor
      October 7, 2009

      http://www.theprovince.com/Eastside+life+hits+natives+hardest/2074072/story.html

      Eddie Taylor was scared, shaking and in tears when he called his dad,
      begging to be rescued.

      Fleeing a childhood filled with violence and neglect - an alcoholic mom used
      as a punching bag by abusive boyfriends, older sisters who were sniffing
      glue, fights and brawls at parties, a series of foster homes - the
      nine-year-old Taylor and his twin brother left Edmonton to live with their
      dad at a hotel beside Oppenheimer Park in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

      "It was a better lifestyle," recalled Taylor, who is from the Gwitch'n First
      Nation on his dad's side and Cree and English on his mom's side. "I felt
      safer and more comfortable, and had better opportunities to be a kid and not
      be so afraid."

      But it wasn't long before old habits crept back into Taylor's new life.

      Having experimented with alcohol and glue when he was seven, Taylor started
      sniffing gasoline, inhaling the noxious fumes from parked cars with friends.

      When he was 13, he started drinking - casually at first, then more and more
      until he began skipping class and getting into trouble.

      One day, fed up with the boozing and late-night knocks on the door from
      police, his dad, a residential school survivor and recovered addict, kicked
      the two boys out.

      Couch-surfing and living on the streets, Taylor started using cocaine and
      heroin and began getting arrested for drug possession, thefts, robberies,
      assaults, and break-and-enters, descending into the tumultuous world of
      addiction and violence he thought he had left behind in
      Alberta.

      * * * * * *

      Nowhere in Canada is there an aboriginal population as diverse as Vancouver's.

      They come from almost every nation across the country, pushed out of their
      hometowns or reserves by lack of economic opportunities, abysmal living
      conditions and dysfunctional family relationships.

      They come, drawn by the warmer weather, in pursuit of jobs, education,
      medical treatment, long-lost family members or a familiar face.

      "It's the bright lights they talk about. But they come here and find out
      there's not really many bright lights, or they're not shining in our
      community," said Lynda Gray, executive director of the Urban Native Youth
      Association.

      Many also struggle with social ills such as broken families, domestic abuse,
      alcohol and drug addiction - consequences of colonization, Canada's
      destructive policy of residential schools and the general failure of modern
      political leaders in Canada, both native and non-native, to find a way to
      undo the damage.

      They come, seeking greener pastures, but with little money, few skills and
      inadequate education, many settle in the barren landscape of the Downtown
      Eastside, where on the streets, in single-room occupancy hotels and
      shelters, the faces of the poverty-stricken and health-afflicted are
      disproportionately native.

      Although aboriginal people make up only four per cent of B.C.'s population,
      they comprise 10 per cent of Downtown Eastside residents. Because of the
      number of aboriginals living in the area, it is nicknamed by some the "Urban
      Rez."

      "It's really a sign, a symptom of a larger problem of how native people
      exist within this community," said Gray, a member of the Tsimshian Nation
      who grew up near Main and Hastings. "It's the most blatant and obvious sign
      of damaged spirits."

      In almost every measure of quality of life, B.C.'s aboriginal people lag
      behind non-aboriginals.

      The drop-out rate of aboriginal students in the Downtown Eastside is 40 per
      cent, compared to a provincial average of 23 per cent. Teenage pregnancy
      among First Nations youth is also double the provincial rate.

      Aboriginals make up nearly 25 per cent of inmates who are in B.C. and Yukon
      jails for violent crimes such as homicide, manslaughter and sexual assault.

      Roughly 30 per cent of the homeless in Greater Vancouver are native, as are
      60 per cent of sex-trade workers in the Downtown Eastside.

      In health, improvements have been made in life expectancy, infant mortality
      and youth suicides, but overall, aboriginals still face greater health risks
      than non-aboriginals and are more likely to die from accidental poisonings
      or contract chronic diseases such as diabetes and Hepatitis C.

      A recent study also revealed that aboriginal drug users are twice as likely
      to contract HIV/AIDS as non-aboriginals.

      Some say the reason is social networking. Aboriginal drug users tend to
      stick together, and when sharing needles expose themselves to a higher risk
      of infection due to existing HIV-positive rates in the community. Others say
      there is a continuing lack of awareness about methods of transmission.

      Gabor Mate, a physician who has worked in the Downtown Eastside for 10
      years, has a simpler explanation.

      "Because when people have been badly hurt, they take less good care of
      themselves," said Mate. "The more traumatized you are, the less kind you are
      to yourself, the less careful you are, and the more desperate you are for
      the drug."

      Out of the patients he sees, about 30 per cent are aboriginal and "there isn't
      a single aboriginal woman I deal with that wasn't sexually abused."

      It's this multi-generational damage that Dave Dickson has seen in 30 years
      of working in the neighbourhood, first as a Vancouver police officer and now
      as an outreach worker.

      He has seen three generations of drug-addicted women work as prostitutes. He
      knew a 40-year-old rice-wine addict whose mother had sexually abused him and
      who drank himself to death. He knows of a mother who sold her 10-year-old
      daughter to a john.

      He estimates only about five per cent of kids he first met in daycare grow
      up to lead healthy lives.

      "If you look at the historical abuse they have suffered, I don't think any
      other cultural group comes close," said Dickson.

      While pointing the finger at the past seems like a cop-out, Dickson believes
      that people whose childhoods were spent around needles, bottles and dirt don't
      know any other kind of life.

      "They were born into that world," he said. "That's one of the biggest
      problems: How do you undo generations of damage with the resources that we
      have?"

      Advocates and aboriginal leaders say it starts with education, especially
      since aboriginal youth aged 25 and younger make up 60 per cent of the
      population.

      "We need to be able to show kids that they have an opportunity to make their
      lives better and it can be something different from what they have
      experienced so far," said Calvin Helin, a successful lawyer and member of
      the Tsimshian Nation who has been critical of what he calls the "welfare
      trap" for aboriginal people.

      "Sometimes it may not be possible to reach the generation of their parents,
      so we need to get to the children . . . In the Eastside there are a lot of
      kids who have both parents in jail or don't get a meal in the morning, so we've
      got to reach them."

      Gray believes community, culture and self-pride is what can help her people.

      "I would say 90 to 99 per cent of aboriginals who are leading healthy,
      strong lives [are doing so] because they have a strong sense of self,
      primarily through culture," she said.

      But many aren't even aware of the legacy of residential schools, even if it
      has shaped their lives.

      Growing up in a troubled home with an alcoholic mother, Gray herself didn't
      find out about residential schools until 1995. "The first time I heard about
      it, a light bulb went off and my entire life made sense," she said.

      The knowledge helped her. "It gave me a sense that this doesn't have to be
      the way it is for me and my children. It gave me a great sense of hope and
      purpose to fight against it."

      Mate said aboriginal people have suffered more, chronically and
      continuously, than any other segment of Canadian society.

      "When you crush people, they need a lot more support to rise from that," he
      said.

      He acknowledges that individuals have to be responsible for their own
      actions. "But the question is, what can we do to help them take that
      responsibility?" he asked. "I can't be responsible for their lives. I can't
      change their lives, but I can help provide the conditions for that change."

      * * * * * *

      Eddie Taylor, now 35, sometimes wonders why he was able to beat the odds of
      his disadvantaged childhood when his siblings couldn't.

      Three of his sisters are dead, killed by their addictions. Another sister is
      still hooked on painkillers and cocaine. His twin brother, who just got out
      of jail, still struggles with his demons.

      His mother has been in hospital for a month, battling the ravages of a
      lifetime of alcohol abuse.

      "I don't know why," he said. "I don't feel there was too much pain there
      that I can't deal with. Maybe my struggles and hurts and pains aren't as
      deep as my sisters' and brother's, because their addictions are so
      prolonged."

      Even in the depths of his addiction and crime spree, Taylor knew he wanted
      something more for himself.

      He's seen a better life through his dad, who worked honest jobs after
      getting clean and who, despite being distant and a harsh disciplinarian, was
      a strong source of support.

      As a kid, Taylor also had other aboriginal people in his community act as
      strong role models for him.

      When he was 19, it was his dad, lawyer and probation officer who worked out
      a deal with the judge where he entered a rehab program in Coquitlam instead
      of jail.

      He emerged clean eight months later and began working part-time in the
      community, including running recreational programs at Oppenheimer Park.

      He completed his high-school equivalency and today works at Bladerunners,
      helping youth find jobs in the construction industry.

      Now living in Burnaby with two kids - six-year-old Eddie Jr. and
      four-year-old Jesse - the proud dad has high hopes for the next generation
      of Taylor boys.

      "I hope the best for them," he said. "They can be hockey players or police
      officers or doctors, whatever they want."

      "I just want to provide them with a safe and happy and positive environment
      so they'll be happy and successful and stay away from the environment I was
      involved in."

      chchan@...
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