Originally story published in The Ubyssey
The UBC peninsula can feel far removed from the Downtown Eastside, Canada’s poorest postal code. The university is often lauded as an academic beacon, while the DTES is stereotyped as a blemish on the face of a polished and Olympic-ready Vancouver.
But through several innovative projects, many groups within the UBC community regularly connect with the much-maligned area. These projects help alleviate some of the neighbourhood’s problems and challenge its one-dimensional reputation as a slum.
“It’s not the mandate of the university, which is academically focused, to somehow solve poverty,” said Mary Holmes, who runs the Urban Aboriginal Community Kitchen Garden at the UBC Farm. “Still, our emphasis is around paving the pathway with kindness.”
As thousands of visitors swarm the city in February, many projects will feel the impact and be forced to adapt. The Ubyssey spoke to some of those planning for the Olympic rush.
“We will be doing some proactive planning,” said Margo Fryer, founding director of the UBC Learning Exchange. “Our location is close to some of the Olympic venues and we will be in the midst of all of that activity.”
The Learning Exchange has a storefront location on Main Street, making it the university’s physical presence in the DTES. It offers various services like language programs, computer training courses and student-designed initiatives. Fryer estimates that around 100 residents make use of the centre every day.
“It’s not going to be business as usual,” said Fryer, “but it would be silly for us to shut down for two weeks and wait for it all to be over. That would be irresponsible.”
Holmes is less sure of how she will adapt.
Every week, a bus picks up DTES residents and native elders, bringing them to the farm to garden, cook, eat together and take food back with them. During the Games, their regular bus route may be congested or even blocked off.
Holmes wants her participants to tell her what they want to do.
“I’m going to be elastic,” she said, though her aim is to keep the service going. “A lot of people depend on the garden 52 weeks of the year, even when we’re not growing anything.”
Other projects are closer to high-traffic areas on campus.
Margo Butler is the Academic Director of Humanities 101, a non-credit university-level course geared toward DTES residents. Classes are held in the Buchanan complex.
“There are 60 students a week from the Downtown Eastside who are at the campus Tuesday and Thursday nights,” said Butler. She pointed out that other community members “might not even know that they’re having supper at the SUB with these students.”
But this service will be on hiatus during the games, partly because the atmosphere on campus is expected to be different as it hosts Olympic events.
“One of the reasons is that the security [on campus] is going to be so high and it’s not necessary to subject our students to it,” she said.
One of Butler’s former students, comedian Paul “Decarie” Cloutier, is taking a humorous approach to the upcoming event.
“As I say in my routine, I’m in favour of anything that brings attention to Vancouver, like Expo ‘86, the Olympics and feet washing up on shore,” he said.
When Cloutier was a UBC student, he frequented the Burger Bar in the SUB. Though he enjoyed his time on campus, he didn’t see it as an escape from his “sometimes rough” neighbourhood.
“Looking from the outside in, people place judgment on [the DTES], but for many of our students it’s a desirable place to live,” said Paul James Woodhouse, program assistant for Humanities 101. He said many residents have fresh perspectives and “beautiful minds.”
This upcoming reading week could be a chance for students to develop their own first-hand opinions.
“Everybody’s got preconceived notions,” said Fryer. “The reason why we see these programs as so powerful is that they do unsettle preconceptions. People get surprised and that’s how learning happens.”
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