Women supporting Women in the Downtown Eastside: By Dave Diewert

Women’s Action Group carries a survivor’s bench to the garden beside Insite. Photo credit: WAG

This article originally appeared in the Downtown East newspaper – the precursor to The Volcano – in February 2014. We are running it in this issue about the 16-year BC Liberal legacy because under the Christy Clark government the funding to the Women’s Action Group and the entire Drug User Resource Centre has been cut. These cuts are part of the Vancouver Coastal Health’s funding shift away from peer-programs like the Women’s Action Group. This article celebrates the resistance and resilience of DTES women’s organizing, while also showing the community spaces and organizing networks we lose at the stroke of a BC Liberal pen. – Volcano editors.  

Women’s Action Group. Photo credit: Wendell Phillips

In 2013, Dianne Tobin was asked if she would consider forming a women’s peer support group at the Drug Users Resource Centre (formerly known as Lifeskills). She enthusiastically said “Yes!”

Dianne has had a long history in the DTES. For a number of years she was president of VANDU and the BC Association of People on Methadone. She has been involved in the NAOMI and SALOME heroin assisted therapy projects and many years ago helped start a women’s group at VANDU. In this latest venture, Dianne brings what she learned at VANDU about peer-based empowerment and advocacy and puts it into practice with the Women’s Action Group (WAG).

The group started with just 4 women attending the first meeting; now over 40 attend the regular Monday morning meetings, with 102 women registered as members. According to Dianne, the “Women’s Action Group is an organization that brings women of all ages and backgrounds together to learn about the opportunities and choices they have in their life. We support women in their attempts to find housing, job opportunities and advocacy.”

The thrust of the group is peer-to-peer support: women in the DTES helping each other out. At the weekly meetings, a diverse group of women talk about the struggles that they face regarding access to health care, the need for good housing, the trauma of child apprehensions, and other concerns. The WAG mission statement begins: “We are the women who have survived all that poverty, homelessness and addiction could throw at us. We are present and former drug users, sex workers and now survivors. We are fighting for the right to proper health care [and] decent housing.”

A few months ago, WAG decided to build a “survivors’ bench” that would honour the women who have survived poverty and violence in the DTES. They brought the bench to the garden beside Insite in what they described as a “Victory March.” The march started down Hastings with 40 women and many others joined them along the way, both women and men. When they arrived at the garden, they were over 100 strong. The bench will have the names of WAG members and its mission statement carved into it. For Dianne and the women of WAG, it’s a symbol of the resilience and strength of women in the DTES.

After a year of being together, WAG has composed a mission statement, formed a small board of peers that coordinates the meetings and helps give direction to the group, and is now working on developing a constitution. The basic principles of peer-based support and advocacy have been shaped by the history and experience of drug users at VANDU, but the women who make up WAG contribute their own unique perspective and interests as well. The mission statement is the result of their collective input and affirms their strength: “We demand respect for we are wise, compassionate and caring. We want to live our lives with respect, hope and dignity.”

Dianne Tobin puts heart and soul into the group. What gives her most pride is the compassion for one another evident in the group, and the way they support and care for each other.

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