Austin Grabish

Making things right

Why covering tragedy matters

There are tears. People are grieving. They’ve gathered to remember lives killed over the last year.

You feel a pinch in your gut as the names of the 295 slain trans persons killed around the world start to be read aloud.

An elder has just said a prayer to Creator and is smudging as more names are read.

People in the crowd, many of trans identify, clench. Some come up to take a turn reading what seems like a never-ending list.

The moment is powerful and would make great TV but the organizers of tonight’s event are keeping media in a corner and telling them firmly they can’t film anyone unless explicit permission has been granted.

So the journalists in the room are left to shoot a dull podium, albeit still important, but not as colourful and impactful as the rest of the room.

Some in the room are likely thinking to themselves the media are vultures for being here, but they are not.

They are here because they care and want to give those 295 people the spotlight they deserve. It’s a big deal they are here. There’s not a lot of media to go around to events like these nowadays.

Covering this vigil is important. There are many trans people in Winnipeg.

These people are subject to violence and murder – brutality that’s right here at home.

Divas B

In 2004, Divas B, a trans Winnipeg woman, was given nine blows to the head as part of a deadly beating.

She was stripped naked and wrapped in plastic when her found was found. Divas was 28-years-old.

I sat in the courtroom earlier this year as Divas’ family wept while the man found guilty of killing her made small chat with a guard showing no remorse for the crime.

That is wrong. Divas mattered. Trans lives matter.

That’s the message that needs to be shared, a message that needs to go beyond queer allies to those not in the know or in support of trans folk.

But how do you get the message shared? The answer is through the media. If you can get the media behind you, you can make tremendous strides in your cause.

You create awareness, gut-wrenching awareness, if needed.

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.”

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.


Gay Hutterite comes out after fleeing colony in rural Manitoba

Garrett Wipf says he’s not afraid to tell his story, though he expects repercussions 

Garrett Wipf, 18, fled his rural Manitoba Hutterite colony two years ago and has never moved back home. (Austin Grabish/Daily Xtra)

Growing up he’d see the pictures in the paper.

Drag queens, rainbow flags, and gay guys.

While his peers scoffed about Winnipeg Pride being in the news, Garrett Wipf thought one day “I’ll be there.”

Then last year he was.

Wipf fled his rural Manitoba Hutterite colony for Winnipeg in 2014 at age 16, and came out earlier this year as gay. He remembers the day he left like it was yesterday.

“March 23 10 o’clock in the morning I decided just to run away.”

It was the first time Wipf ever left Homewood Colony on his own. The community is located about 45 minutes away from the City of Winnipeg.

“I threw everything in garbage bags, ran to our Styrofoam factory [to meet] my friend and never looked back after that,” he says.

Wipf says he had to leave because his mother confronted him about being gay.

“It wasn’t very pleasant. She disowned me.”

“I was just in shock. I honestly just sat there and [had] questions running through my head. Who did I talk to about this?” he recalls.

‘Turn straight or you’re not my child’

He says he was scared his mom would make good on her threat to report him to the colony’s minister, who is the leader of the community.

“I know what would happen it’s very simple.”

His options: Turn straight or “you’re not my child.”

“I tried telling her it’s not an option, but she’s a very stubborn woman,” he says.

Wipf says if the matter went to the minister he would’ve been evicted from the colony.

“Just probably taken downtown [and told]: ‘walk,’” he says, throwing up his hands.

Growing up, Wipf says he quietly looked up to Kelly Hofer, another gay Hutterite from Manitoba, who broke community lines when he came out at age 19.

“I did secretly because he is probably the most hated Hutterite,” Wipf says.

(Kelly Hofer, 23, also fled his Hutterite colony in rural Manitoba. /Submitted by Kelly Hofer)

“It’s pretty gratifying to hear,” says Hofer, now 23, when reached by phone in Calgary, Alberta.

Hofer says there’s been a significant change in mindset amongst young people living in his colony.

“Not just tolerance but kind of acceptance within some people that I totally didn’t expect.”

Hofer’s story is documented in an online documentary entitled Queer Hutterite Misfit on the Colony.

Wipf is working on writing a book to tell his story, but he believes the book and this Daily Xtra article will create controversy.

“Yes, there will be,” he says, speaking firmly of possible repercussions for speaking out.

“I want them all to know that we’re not afraid to fight for other gay Hutterites,” he says.

“I’m not afraid of talking about this.”

He says his book will include a section about the depression he endured while growing up, and past suicide attempts.

“There was a couple of those.”

“Being told that it’s a sin and that it’s disgusting and that you’re going to hell for it. It does something to a younger mind.”

Wipf says that depression melted away when he left the colony and today he’s in a much better place mentally.

He says he’s adapted well to city life. Since moving to Winnipeg, he’s made friends in the gay community, gone to gay bars, and dated guys.

(Garrett Wipf now lives in Winnipeg. Here, he stands below a new part of the city’s renovated downtown convention centre on July 3, 2o16./Austin Grabish/Daily Xtra)

You wouldn’t know Wipf was a Hutterite at first glance. He’s deliberately changed his appearance to be himself. The only thing revealing his Hutterite identity is his thick Austrian accent.

There are no suspenders or black pants today. Instead, he’s wearing a long knit sweater from H&M, flip-flops, a rainbow lanyard, ripped pants and a black cross.

“It’s a little reminder of where I came from,” he says of the cross.

When Wipf fled the colony, he still had about a year and a half left of high school.

He still plans to finish school through a continuing education program and then wants to become a nurse.

Ironically he’s now working for a Winnipeg construction company run entirely by Hutterites.

“These people are educated and have experience out here. Enough to know it’s okay to be gay, and there’s no problem with it,” he says.

‘People don’t move’: Strollers vs. wheelchairs on Winnipeg Transit

Advocates say overcrowded buses and parents with strollers are leaving wheelchair users on the curb, so who should get a seat?

Posted: Jul 04, 2016 5:45 AM CT
Last Updated: Jul 04, 2016 6:07 AM CT

Libby Zdriluk, 30, says finding a spot on Winnipeg Transit is becoming harder due to crammed buses and parents with strollers taking up accessible spots.  Libby Zdriluk, 30, says finding a spot on Winnipeg Transit is becoming harder due to crammed buses and parents with strollers taking up accessible spots. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

By Austin Grabish, CBC News

People living with disabilities are calling on the City of Winnipeg to make sure they can catch a seat on the bus hassle-free.

Advocates say overcrowded buses and parents with strollers are leaving wheelchair users on the curb.

The Independent Living Resource Centre said parents with strollers are taking up accessibility spots on buses on a daily basis.

Allen Mankewich, a wheelchair user and consultant with the Independent Living Resource Centre, said it’s an issue he deals with regularly.

“I had an issue myself the other day. There was myself on the bus, one of my colleagues [and an] oversized stroller with three wheels on the bus,” Mankewich said.

Allen Mankewich Allen Mankewich, a wheelchair user and consultant with the Independent Living Resource Centre, said Winnipeg Transit should create a policy so oversized strollers don’t take wheelchair spots on Winnipeg Transit buses. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

“We basically had to play Tetris to get ourselves in and out of the bus.”

Libby Zdriluk, 30, uses a power wheelchair to get around and said she’s had to wait in frigid temperatures during the winter because strollers have taken the only space available for wheelchairs.

She wants Winnipeg Transit drivers to make sure wheelchair users get on the bus hassle- and confrontation-free.

Currently people with disabilities are being left to fend for themselves, she said.

“I just wish the drivers would automatically say ‘move over’ or ‘get off the bus for a minute,’ but they just don’t seem to do that,” she said.

The City of Winnipeg said it has decals on all of its low-floor buses to indicate designated areas for wheelchairs and strollers.

Spokeswoman Alissa Clark said drivers are trained to help passengers with wheelchairs or strollers and are supposed to ask riders without mobility issues to move if a seat is needed.

But Eva Beaudoin, 58, said it’s always a struggle finding room on the bus when there’s a stroller. She said she finds it awkward asking people to move so she can ride the bus.

“I have to practically ask for a seat and then I get a dirty look,” Beaudoin said.

“People don’t move.”

But not everyone in the disability community feels wheelchairs should be given priority over strollers.

Winnipeg disability advocate Jim Derksen said he wants the City of Winnipeg to add more flexible seating on its buses, so both wheelchairs and strollers have more room.

“I believe in universal design and don’t think our needs are any more important than parents with children,” Derksen said.

John Callahan, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1505, which represents Winnipeg bus drivers, said the union wants more buses put on the street to help deal with the issue.

He said drivers have raised concerns about strollers taking accessibility spots on the bus and the absence of a policy instructing drivers what to do about it.

“It’s something that’s been around for a long time, but there’s been no official stand on how to approach it,” Callahan said.

“I think they need to look real seriously at it.”

U.K. Supreme Court case

In the U.K., the battle between a wheelchair user and a bus firm has gone to the country’s Supreme Court.

Disability activist Doug Paulley took his case to a lower court in 2012 after being told he could not get on a bus when a mother with a stroller refused to move.

The Supreme Court held a hearing into the case in June and Paulley said he hopes to receive a ruling from the court in the coming months.

He said he is optimistic about the case and hopes it will end with better enforcement of the rights of people with disabilities.

“Public transport should be available for everybody,” Paulley, 38, told CBC News via Skype from Wetherby, England.