Austin Grabish

Making things right

‘Lost girl’ returns to Winnipeg after unexpected bloodshed on peacekeeping trip

‘Lost girl’ returns to Winnipeg after unexpected bloodshed on peacekeeping trip

On the Line Winnipeg

Rebecca Deng was in South Sudan this summer moving sewing machines for women when a killing spree left hundreds dead

By Austin Grabish | 

Rebecca Deng isn’t giving up hope.

The ‘Lost girl,’ who got swept up in a violent killing spree that left hundreds dead this summer has returned to Winnipeg and wants to continue building peace for her home country.

“It is what it is. We can’t take it back we just need to move forward,” Deng said Wednesday evening at the South Sudanese Community Centre.

Deng returned to Winnipeg Aug. 30 after venturing on a women’s peacekeeping mission to Bor, South Sudan. The trip came to a crashing halt after a brutal clash between the country’s military and rebel forces erupted.

Members of Winnipeg’s South Sudanese community held a moment of silence for the hundreds that were killed. Silver ribbons were also tied around everyone’s wrist to…

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City of Vancouver pulls plug on apology for West End sex workers

City’s non-apology at memorial’s launch a ‘betrayal,’ says UBC prof

Published on Thu, Sep 22, 2016 10:02 pm.

Austin Grabish

Austin Grabish
Vancouver Councillor Andrea Reimer presented an “acknowledgment” and not an apology on Sept 16, 2016, for the city’s role in displacing sex workers from Vancouver’s West End in the 1980s. Rosemary Newton/Daily Xtra.

The City of Vancouver quietly sidestepped issuing a formal apology for forcing sex workers from the city’s West End, just days before unveiling a monument to honour them, Daily Xtra has learned.

Working with sex worker advocates, the city unveiled a long-awaited memorial — a Victorian lamppost topped with a red light — on Sept 16, 2016, in front of St Paul’s Anglican Church, but an apology was not read.

Unlike police who apologized at the unveiling, the city offered only a “formal acknowledgment” for its displacement of sex workers in the 1980s.

“I thought it was very cowardly,” says Jamie Lee Hamilton, an indigenous sex worker who’s been fighting for a monument and a formal apology for years.

Hamilton says she and other sex worker advocates were expecting an apology from the city and were asked, and had submitted, the first draft of one just a few weeks ago to the mayor’s office.

But the city pulled the plug on an apology and the draft never came back to her, Hamilton says.

Jamie Lee Hamilton speaks at the opening of the memorial to sex workers. Rosemary Newton/Daily Xtra.

A spokesperson for Mayor Gregor Robertson says the decision not to issue an apology was made internally by city staff.

Katie Robb says in 2014 the city committed to reviewing an apology for its 1982 street activities bylaw — which pushed sex workers out of the West End to “secure community safety” — but instead chose to issue a “formal acknowledgment.”

Robb wouldn’t say if the city would apologize in the future. “This is what the city’s decided for now,” she says.

Hamilton says there’s a fine line between an acknowledgment and an apology. “I think an apology moves us towards reconciliation,” she says.

Vancouver police fined and evicted Hamilton and other sex workers from the West End in the mid-1980s, after a group of residents, led by gay former city councillor Gordon Price, raised concerns about safety in the neighbourhood.

The decision was disastrous for workers who would soon become more prone to violence and murder, Hamilton says.

“They were placed into dark industrial areas with no supports. The community was disbanded.”

Hamilton says about 20 sex workers, many of whom were trans friends, were killed after being booted out of the West End.

They include Helen Hallmark, Tracy Olajide, Harlow (last name not known), Danielle Doucette, Kellie Little, Chantel Gillade, and Chrissy Warren.

“I could mention more, but you get the picture,” Hamilton says.

“There’s not many surviving workers left from that time.”

Becki Ross calls the mayor’s refusal to issue an apology a “betrayal.” Rosemary Newton/ Daily Xtra.

Becki Ross, a sociology professor at the University of British Columbia and a co-founder of the West End Sex Workers Memorial Committee, says the mayor’s refusal to offer a public apology is a “betrayal.”

Ross calls it a “squandered opportunity,” and says Robertson missed a chance to stand with indigenous sex workers.

“I think the mayor’s refusal is a measure of the tenacity and stubbornness of whorephobia,” Ross says.

Hamilton says she suspects the mayor’s office pulled the plug on an apology because of pressure from opponents to the monument.

Hamilton says she voted for Robertson because when he ran for office in 2008, he promised to be open to an apology.

“I kept my promise but the mayor didn’t keep his obviously,” she says.

The inscription at the base of the new memorial. Rosemary Newton/ Daily Xtra.
Last week’s monument unveiling has created some controversy in the West End.

Geoff Holter, 67, has lived in the neighbourhood since 1973 and has written to city hall asking council to remove the monument.

“This story is not over,” he says.

Holter says he felt blindsided when the lamppost was unveiled last week and his community was not consulted about it. “It’s like an index finger to everyone who lives there,” he says.

Holter was one of the residents who fought to have sex workers leave the West End in 1982.

He says the neighbourhood was starting to mirror the city’s Downtown Eastside. “It got to the point where a woman couldn’t walk down the street without being propositioned,” Holter says.

“I couldn’t get out of my driveway most nights there was so much bumper to bumper traffic of johns trying to do a pickup.”

“There’d be businessmen on their way downtown stopping their cars and getting a quickie.”

Holter says he’s also frustrated with the notion that West End sex workers in the 1970s helped shape the emergence of Vancouver’s gaybourhood.

“You know before it was the gaybourhood it was a hooker hood,” Hamilton says. “We were a tight-knit community.”

But Holter vehemently denies that sentiment.

“The effort to drive them out of the neighbourhood was led by gay men,” he says.

‘I was just so scared,’ Winnipeg woman caught in middle of violent clash in South Sudan

Hundreds are dead as tensions continue to rise in the country

By Austin Grabish, CBC News

Posted: Jul 22, 2016 5:00 AM CT
Last Updated: Jul 22, 2016 5:00 AM CT

Elizabeth Andrea, 51, returned to Winnipeg from South Sudan on Thursday, July 21st. The Winnipeg grandma had to take cover during a violent clash between South Sudan’s government and rebel forces earlier this month.
Elizabeth Andrea, 51, returned to Winnipeg from South Sudan on Thursday, July 21st. The Winnipeg grandma had to take cover during a violent clash between South Sudan’s government and rebel forces earlier this month. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

When Elizabeth Andrea saw the armoured car, she knew something wasn’t right. But when she saw people running, she knew she had to take cover.

The Winnipeg grandmother returned home Thursday from a peacekeeping trip to Rumbek that came to a crashing halt due to escalating violence in South Sudan.

Recent clashes between the country’s military and rebel forces have left at least 300 dead. Andrea was in Juba, South Sudan’s capital when fighting erupted on July 7th.

“We saw people running,” she said. “We saw the bodies.”

Andrea said she ran to the concrete home she was staying in when the violent clash happened and credits it with saving her life.

“I was just so scared.”

Speaking in her Winnipeg home Thursday, she said she thought to herself, “I’m there. My children are here, and somebody could die anytime.”

She said she worried she was going to be caught in the crossfire when she was trying to make it home to Winnipeg. The country’s airport was shut down due to the escalating violence, and the Canadian embassy was also closed.

‘We didn’t expect that kind of thing would happen again’

Andrea, who immigrated to Winnipeg in 1998 from South Sudan, said the killings in her country shocked her.

“We didn’t expect that kind of thing would happen again.”

“It’s out of control,” she said as a poster of Nelson Mandela hanging in her living room peeked over her shoulder.

South Sudanese community grappling with news

Reuben Garang, a South Sudanese man, who is better known as a ‘Lost Boy’ for fleeing his country in 1987 with thousands of other children, said the news coming from home is “very disturbing.”

lost boy
Reuben Garang, who is known as a ‘Lost Boy’ for fleeing South Sudan in 1987 with thousands of other children, said Winnipeg’s South Sudanese community is trying to stay united. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

“For a long time, I have never lost hope. This time, it’s very difficult for me not to say that I’m not losing hope, and this is because of the complexity of the situation,” Garang told CBC Radio Thursday.

Garang said the war is creating division in the South Sudanese community, and its local leaders are trying to keep people united.

“It is very difficult to imagine that our own leaders, people that have helped in the struggle (for independence) have turned the country into a killing ground.”

Andrea said despite the violence, she remains hopeful the government and opposition forces will be able to work out a peace agreement.

“We want our people to live in peace.”

‘Lost girl’ returns to South Sudan to find hundreds slaughtered

Rebecca Deng, who fled to Winnipeg in 2005, back in South Sudan to start women’s centre

By Austin Grabish, CBC News

Posted: Jul 19, 2016 1:34 PM CT
Last Updated: Jul 19, 2016 7:42 PM CT
Rebecca Deng, who fled to Winnipeg more than a decade ago, says she was shocked to return home to South Sudan to find hundreds of people slaughtered.

A South Sudanese woman who fled to Winnipeg a decade ago says she’s in shock after returning home to find hundreds of people slaughtered.

“I thought my country would be in peace. I thought nothing would happen again,” Rebecca Deng told CBC when reached by phone in Juba, South Sudan.

Deng arrived in South Sudan, on July 6 to help start a women’s resource centre in the city.

But a clash between rebel forces and the country’s military, which has left hundreds dead, including women and children, has stalled her plan to empower women.

When Deng arrived, bodies lay outside the compound where she’s staying, and heavy fighting continued until Sunday.

“You don’t even know who’s fighting with who. People are wearing the same uniform and carrying the same gun,” she said.

During the violence, soldiers were drinking and then raping women, Deng said.

“It’s so, so painful seeing a pregnant woman being raped and you can’t talk. If you talk, you got shot,” Deng said.

Troops took Deng’s cellphone away and detained her for over an hour for taking a photo of women crossing the road.

“Not even take a picture of the body,” she said, speaking of the many bodies that have littered the ground.

“It’s easy to get shot, so you have to be careful,”

‘I’m not giving up’

The mood has calmed in Juba, but people are now searching for food because thieves looted homes and markets during the violence, said Deng.

“For the children and women, there is no food,” she said.

Deng is leaving Juba Wednesday but is to return to South Sudan in a few weeks to start work on a women’s centre in Bor, where 33 women were killed in 2013.

“I’m not giving up. I’m still carrying on my vision with other women.… I want to support the women. I want to show them that we share the same pain.”

In 1987, when she was 13, Deng and thousands of other South Sudanese children fled for an Ethiopian refugee camp.

The children became known as the lost boys and girls of South Sudan.

Deng has lived in Winnipeg since 2005 and is a human rights student at the University of Winnipeg.

APTOPIX South Sudan Rebels Return

South Sudanese rebel soldiers raise their weapons at a military camp in the capital Juba, South Sudan, on April 7. (Jason Patinkin/Associated Press)

Mystery surrounds little-known free bus pass program for people with disabilities

Advocates say the City of Winnipeg should advertise program better

By Austin Grabish, CBC News

Posted: Jul 18, 2016 4:15 AM CT
Last Updated: Jul 18, 2016 2:12 PM CT

Jesse Turner rides Winnipeg Transit for free but says the city program that allows her to do that isn’t advertised to everyone in Winnipeg’s disability community. (Austin Grabish/CBC )

A little-known city program that lets Handi-Transit users ride Winnipeg Transit for free should be better advertised and made available to more riders, advocates say.

In 2006, the city made it free for Handi-Transit users to ride regular transit for free, but several transit users CBC News spoke to say they’ve never heard of the program.

Any Handi-Transit user that uses a wheelchair, scooter, or is legally blind or unable to walk 175 metres qualifies for the program.

But numbers provided by the City of Winnipeg show only 919 users have a free pass. There are 6,371 users eligible for the program, the city said.

“It’s not something that they state outright on the public transit and Handi-Transit website,” said Jesse Turner, 34.

Turner is a wheelchair user registered with Handi-Transit but rides regular transit because she has a free card from the program.

She got the card after hearing about free fare through a friend who also had a card.

“I try to avoid using Handi-Transit just because you have to book in advance and then you’re on their schedule,” Turner said.

Eva Beaudoin is the chair of the Disabled Women’s Network of Manitoba and said she never heard about the free fare program until CBC News contacted her.

Beaudoin, 58, lives with a disability, uses a cane to get around, and is on a fixed income.

She uses Winnipeg Transit for convenience and sits in priority seating on the bus but said she would apply for Handi-Transit just to receive the free fare.

Eva Beaudoin
Eva Beaudoin is the chair of the Disabled Women’s Network of Manitoba and said she’s never heard about a free fare program that lets Handi-Transit users ride the regular bus for free. (Austin Grabish/CBC )

“I think it should be done for everybody all people with disabilities,” Beaudoin said.

“It would save a lot of money.”

Josh Brandon, a community animator for the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg, said the free fare program should be better advertised so it can reach more people. He suggested the city advertise directly on Winnipeg Transit buses.

Brandon said Handi-Transit is already a program difficult for many to get into.

“There’s always a problem when you have programs that are application based.” “That’s why we prefer programs that are more universal,” he said.

City of Winnipeg spokeswoman Alissa Clark said in order to ride regular transit for free, Handi-Transit users must obtain a photo ID card, which is good for three years.

Clark said the majority of Handi-Transit users have impairments that prevent them from using Winnipeg Transit and suggested that could be the reason for the discrepancy in the numbers.

Advocates say the City of Winnipeg should advertise a city program better that lets Handi-Transit users ride Winnipeg Transit for free. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

She said letters are sent out to all Handi-Transit users who qualify for the program and clients are also informed about the free program verbally.

But some say they were never told about the program.

Libby Zdriluk, 30, uses both Handi-Transit and Winnipeg Transit to get around. She said she didn’t know about the waived fare program until a free card arrived in the mail one day.

“It just showed up,” Zdriluk said.

“Obviously, I was pretty mad to find out I could’ve been riding for free,” she added.

Scott Best is legally blind and has a free fare card. But the 26-year-old said he hardly uses it because he finds Winnipeg Transit too difficult to navigate.

He said the free fare program feels “a little weird” since he can’t use it easily.

Terry McIntosh, 54, rides Handi-Transit and doesn’t have the free fare card.

“It would be useful but with our weather in winters I couldn’t use it half the time If I wanted.”

She added she doesn’t mind paying to ride the bus. “We want to be treated equal so why would I use the bus free?”

“It’s probably not a perspective most people would agree with, though,” she said.

Thousands flock to support love in Manitoba’s Bible Belt at inaugural Pride

Jennifer Schroeder, 24, is from Steinbach and said she went against her family’s beliefs by attending the city’s first Pride. Austin Grabish / Daily Xtra

You might say it was worth the trip.

By Austin Grabish, Daily Xtra

STEINBACH, Man. – They got their march, and there were no protesters.

“Love always wins,” said Michelle McHale, the driving force behind Steinbach’s first Pride March.

“I never in a million years dreamed that I would see this before me,” McHale said.

“We kind of thought that if we got all our friends together, family members maybe we’d have 200 people.”


Steinbach Pride organzier Michelle McHale and her partner Karen Phillips lead Steinbach’s first Pride march.

There was no official tally of those in attendance, but an RCMP spokesman estimated as many as 3,000 came out to today’s march and rally.

There were so many people out in support of Steinbach’s first Pride, the march and a rally that followed at city hall were delayed twice.

“Apparently, our roads are not designed for love,” one man shouted.


Many supporters showed up with signs.


McHale told a packed children’s park, where the march started, traffic was bumper to bumper backed up all the way to Ste. Anne Man., located some 15 minutes outside the city.

Numbers aside, history was made today in this rural Manitoba city.

Many in Steinbach, a staunchly Conservative community, have fought for months against today’s march. Some threatened to protest.


Supporters of Steinbach Pride came out in droves.


But there were no protesters seen on city streets here today.

Instead, a sea of rainbow colours and signs denouncing homophobic comments made by some community members brushed over this normally quiet city.


Months of controversy surrounded today’s march.


Some criticized the noticeable absence of local politicians like Conservative MP Ted Falk, who said attending Pride would go against his beliefs. Others held signs saying, “God loves gays” and “cancer is not caused by homosexuality.”

Some held signs denouncing the decision by local politicians like Conservative MP Ted Falk to skip Steinbach’s first Pride. 


Lynn Barkman, a local school trustee, had suggested cancer was caused by homosexuality in June when explaining her reason for opposing LGBT talk in middle school.

Many said today marked a new day for local queer people.

“I’m going to say something that I never thought I’d say in a million years: Happy Steinbach Pride everyone,” said Chris Plett, a local Mennonite.

“A new Steinbach is being born in this moment and freedom for the LGBTTQ community is on its way,” McHale said.


Saint Boniface—Saint Vital MP Dan Vandal read a speech on behalf of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and left a signed copy with Pride organizers.

“We must continue to support those who have experienced discrimination and remember that we cannot let up on the fight against bigotry,” Vandal said on behalf of Trudeau.

Jennifer Schroeder, 24, is from Steinbach and held a pink sign that said “Jesus had two dads and turned out fine.”

Schroeder said she knew holding the sign went against her family’s beliefs.

“We need to break the lines,” “You know there’s tension here in the community, and we need change to happen.”

Mason Godwaldt, 18, was instrumental in organizing Saturday’s march.

The trans man came out last June and said although there’s lots of positive change happening in Steinbach many are still scared to admit they are part of the LGBT community.

“That’s because there are still so many people that don’t agree with it. So instead of being shunned by family and friends they hide who they are. They put on a mask and deny them true selves. I know this because I lived that life,” Godwaldt said.


Michelle McHale gets ready to speak on the steps of Steinbach City Hall, which refused to support its community’s first Pride.


Most of the supporters at Pride that spoke with Daily Xtra were from Winnipeg, but McHale said there were plenty from Steinbach.

She said she was surprised there were no protesters since some had threatened to take to the streets.

Still, McHale said she expects local queer people will be shunned in the future, but she left those people with a strong message.

“We will not be silent any longer.”

“Love is love is love,” shouted a woman in the crowd after McHale made the comment.


McHale said her message to local LGBT people living in the area to find their allies.

“Allies want to help, but they don’t always know to do,” she said.

Steinbach Mayor Chris Goertzen was also absent from Saturday’s Pride. He didn’t return requests for comment.

McHale said there will be a Pride celebration again next year.


First Pride divides community in Manitoba’s Bible Belt

Homosexual sin ‘disgusts me,’ says one Steinbach local, as others prepare for historic march

Michelle McHale is organizing Steinbach’s first Pride march on July 9, 2016. Many in Steinbach, a staunchly Conservative and predominately Mennonite city, are opposed to homosexuality. (Austin Grabish/Daily Xtra)
 Gay history is expected to be made this weekend in the Bible Belt of Manitoba.

Steinbach, Manitoba’s third largest city, is gearing up for its very first Pride march and the celebration is already rife with controversy.

The march, scheduled to take place Saturday, July 9, 2016, is the result of a long-fought battle in the predominantly Mennonite community.

Organizer Michelle McHale doesn’t think it will become violent but says to expect resistance.

I do expect protesters. I expect that to happen just given some of the things that we’ve heard,” she says.

“It’s all kind of surreal,” she adds of the parade she never thought would come to Steinbach.

The battle to this point

The battle over LGBT rights in Steinbach boiled over this spring after school board trustees bristled first at McHale’s request, then at a student’s request to revise their guidelines prohibiting discussion of LGBT issues until high school.

Steinbach’s newspaper the Carillon reported that trustee Lynn Barkman opposed introducing LGBT issues in middle school because, she believes, students are not equipped to understand the complexities of sexuality.

Teachers, students and parents in the district “know that our culture is changing,” she said according to the Carillon, but “that does not suggest that we should abandon truth.”

Barkman, who is a nurse, then linked the rise of sex education in Toronto to a heightened risk of cancer, the Carillon reported.

“I just feel that there is enough cancer around and the increase in cancer is phenomenal,” she said.

Carillon reporter Ian Froese told Daily Xtra some applauded after Barkman made the comment.

“I thought it was one of the loudest cheers any trustee got,” Froese said in a message.

McHale and her partner, who left Steinbach in May, have now filed a human rights complaint against the Hanover School Division for its ongoing refusal to allow classroom discussions of LGBT issues until high school due to their “sensitive” nature.

(Michelle McHale left Steinbach after facing backlash for her attempt to bring LGBT issues into school curriculum. She says her son was also bullied for having two moms./Austin Grabish/Daily Xtra)

School board confrontation only the latest

In 2003, a federal committee visited Steinbach to talk about legalizing same-sex marriage. Those vehemently opposed to homosexuality came out in droves to voice their opposition to gay marriage.

Their concerns, along with gay marriage proponents’ voices, are documented in over 200 archived pages online.

The road to Pride

Proponents of Steinbach Pride have fought for months and have had to cut through bureaucratic hoops to get here.

After initially refusing to issue a permit for the Pride march, Manitoba RCMP say their commanding officer will now attend the event.

McHale says police have reassured her they’ll keep Saturday’s march safe.

She reiterates Saturday’s event is about love.

“We will not engage in protesters. That’s not what we’re there for.”

‘The politicians not showing is really disappointing’

Steinbach’s local politicians are skipping out on Saturday’s event.

The region’s Conservative MP Ted Falk says he won’t attend due to personal family values — though he initially blamed his upcoming absence on a commitment to attend a Frog Follies festival, before the festival’s organizer publicly urged him to attend Pride instead.

The area’s provincial MLA, Kelvin Goertzen, won’t attend Pride either, and has balked at media queries about his absence.

Steinbach’s mayor won’t be there either.


“The politicians not showing is really disappointing to me,” says Evan Wiens, 20.

Wiens brought Steinbach into the spotlight in 2013 when he tried to start a gay-straight alliance in the city’s high school.

He says he knows progress is being slowly made, but was still shocked to learn there’d be a Pride march in Steinbach.

“I didn’t think I would ever hear the words Steinbach Pride, at least this soon,” he says.

‘There are lots of good people there’

Wiens says it’s been touching to see public support for the march and broader LGBT acceptance.

“People always viewed me as the lone gay person in the town,” he says.

He makes a point of saying not everyone in Southeastern Manitoba is homophobic.

“At the end of the day, I don’t like to personally paint Steinbach with an ugly brush, because I know that there are lots of good people there.”

But opposition remains widespread

Those opposed to Saturday’s Pride march, and homosexuality in general, have been vocal about their outrage, often taking to social media to vent their concerns.


‘I don’t feel it’s right they push their agenda like that’

Marcy Kornelsen, 59, is one of several locals who’ve expressed outrage about the march on Facebook.

Reached by phone in Steinbach, she told Daily Xtra she would be staying far away from the march. “I’m outraged,” she says.

“I’m a Christian. I believe the Bible and the Bible says that homosexuality is a sin and so that is why I don’t agree with the promotion of it.”

Kornelsen likened gay people to thieves. “Stealing is wrong, and homosexuality is wrong. It’s all on the same page.”

“I don’t feel it’s right that they push their agenda like that.”

Asked if gay people disgust her, she had this to say:

“I don’t know if the people itself disgust me. It’s the whole idea of the homosexual sin that disgusts me.”

“That part I’m just like, ‘really how can anybody even want to do something like that?’”

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