Mona Woodward’s Downtown Eastside Revolution

Mona Woodward is the former CEO of the Aboriginal Front Door Society and this was written during her tenure. Today, she has a new job: co-chair of the Sisterwatch committee and a support worker for RainCity Housing.

11.15.10 news.aboriginal Mona Woodward, Exec Dir at the Aboriginal Front Door Society. Photo: Dan Toulgoet

A revving engine of a woman, Mona Woodward comes wheeling out of the modest store front known as the Aboriginal Front Door Society, just steps from Main and Hastings, Ground Zero for Vancouver’s infamous Downtown Eastside, the poorest postal code in the country.

High summer. Woodward wears a smart business dress, sandals and chic sunglasses and striking pink, beaded earrings.

She marches north past the courthouse, past the social services office — it’s Welfare Wednesday and people are lined up all the way to the Sunrise Market — to the foot of Main Street and a pedestrian overpass that loops over to Crab Park.

The park is an oasis overlooking Vancouver Harbour. And a world away from the Downtown Eastside. But there can no forgetting: in the middle of the park there is a shrine to the estimated 1,000 missing and murdered aboriginal women in this country. Woodward bows her head. Someone has placed fresh flowers on the shrine.

She takes a seat on a nearby park bench. Sitting quietly, exhaling, composing herself.

“Let me introduce myself,” she says with an engaging smile. “Share my street cred."

“I am Cree,” she explains, “originally from the prairies. My Cree name can be translated as Sparkling Fast Rising River Woman.

"Some say I’ve had a hard life, and I won't disagree. But I’m a survivor, too, and have a deep insight into the many challenges facing aboriginal women today. And that is my mission: to help them, protect them, encourage them, empower them. Every way I can.

“I’m calling for a revolution to help aboriginal woman. In fact, we’re already started. Just watch us.”

What guts. What commitment. But how did she get here from there?

Sixteen years ago, the former heroin addict and sex-trade worker woke up in a dumpster off Gore Street, after a “violent trick with a john.” Left for dead, groggy, she was able to climb out of the dumpster and out in the alley where a young woman held her hand as she called for an ambulance. There followed a stint in the hospital and, over the weeks and months to follow, a slow recovery, physical, mental, spiritual.

The incident changed her life. She made a promise to herself. She would get clean. She would respect herself. She would get a job. She would help others. She still has her struggles, yes, but takes each day as it comes.

She went to university to study social work. And today, she manages a society that reaches out to the poor, the lost, the lonely and confused.

“Look, we’re a community,” she says. “Despite all the bad PR, despite all the human tragedy. Many people live and work here. The Downtown Eastside is far, far more than the four-block stretch of crack, homelessness and human despair that too often leads the evening news.”

“We are a community,” she repeats with emphasis. And many make it their home: workers, pensioners and businesses.”

“We’re here to help aboriginal people — and non-aboriginal people too — who need help. Anyone. Period. We consider ourselves a “low-barrier” social service agency. That means we are many things: a drop-in with coffee and sandwiches, a referral centre, a listening post and much more. We have some of the best counselors going.”

Yesterday, more than 200 people came in the front door. Mid-afternoon, staff rushed out into the street to help an aboriginal man, bleeding head-to-toe, from an attack by someone wielding a sword on Hastings Street. One staffer called the ambulance; another attended to the victim.


Some stories are beyond fiction. Last month, an aboriginal youth from Vancouver Island came through the front door. It was her first time in the Downtown Eastside and she was nervous and afraid. Over a cup of tea, she explained her boyfriend had been arrested for carrying a handgun. Together, she and the councilor telephoned her family. They were aghast and said they would pay for the bus to Horseshoe Bay and the ferry back to Nanaimo, where they would meet her and take her back home. And so they did.

“Such a day,” Woodward recalls. “They can take a toll on staff, all of whom are volunteers.

“But we’re making news,” she says. “And moving up to a bigger league.”

She’s referring to the recent launch of the society’s Red Jacket Campaign to reduce the damaging effects of high-risk behavior.

“We wear our Red Jackets when we are out in the community, raising awareness of our work, boosting our presence in the Downtown Eastside, and promoting AFDS as a safe, non-judgmental place for every member of our community. “

“And there is more good news coming,” she explains. “We’ve had non-profit status since 2013 and people and businesses who donate money receive tax deductible receipts.”

Back in the park, Woodward stares out across the harbour. Then, waving good-bye, she picks up the pace, and marches double time, back to work — back to the random chaos of aboriginal life at the corner of Hastings and Main.

  Photo credits: Dan Toulgoet and Lee Bacchus  

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