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Will and Kate visit one of Canada’s toughest corners

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge visit Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside to hear hard truths from Indigenous women


 
Britain's Prince William receives a teddy bear from five-year-old Hailey Cain as Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, second left, looks on during a tour of Sheway, a centre that provides support for Indigenous women, during a visit to Vancouver, B.C., Sunday, Sept. 25, 2016. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press via AP)

Prince William receives a teddy bear from five-year-old Hailey Cain during a tour of Sheway, a centre that provides support for Indigenous women, during a visit to Vancouver, B.C., Sunday, Sept. 25, 2016. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press via AP)

The smell of pot and stale beer lingered over a gritty stretch of sidewalk outside Sheway, on West Hastings, in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Minutes before the social service agency for mothers with addiction issues welcomed the duke and duchess of Cambridge, an older woman in sweats slowly shuffled past, leaning heavily on a walker, a cigarette gripped between two fingers. Across the street, a shirtless man in his fifties scratched at his bare arms, as he watched from the window of his SRO.

In other words, Sunday was like any other day in the tough, east side neighbourhood better known for ugly headlines; one such headline earlier this week noted that a visiting UN special rapporteur was “horrified” by conditions in the area.

Then, suddenly, the crowd—made up mostly of Downtown Eastside locals, including a little girl dressed as Snow White—let out a roar. Prince William and Kate Middleton were sped to the front door by police escort, and hustled inside.

The pair spent a full hour with the women of Sheway, hearing “how they grew up, how came to be down here [in the Downtown Eastside], about their struggles, their addictions,” explained Jaimie Poulin, the mother of two young daughters.

Some Indigenous residents told Will and Kate how they and their families had been harmed by colonialism, residential schools, by abuse.

Without Sheway, Poulin says she wouldn’t have custody of her children. Until she came to Sheway, she’d been living on the streets, she says; but the organization gave her a bed, and the supports she needed to “keep my children with me, and become the mother I am today.”

Avoiding the pain and traumas associated with separation is key to helping mothers stay clean, says Ariane Armond, who lives two blocks east of here; she herself lost her son to foster care for six years, at a time before Sheway existed. Her warm, open face hardened in pain at the memory, and her eyes filled with tears. Armond said she hoped the visit would help “open the eyes of the world outside.”

To Deana McDonald, the visit also “showed the ladies here at Sheway they’re important too.”

“A lot of people shun us—because we’re from the Downtown Eastside, because we’ve got dirty clothes on, because we’re First Nations. But Will is definitely taking after his mom,” added McDonald, a Gitxsan member from the B.C. Interior, considering the legacy of the late Princess Diana.

“He’s got that big heart. He’s showing the world we are people, and we deserve love and attention, too.”

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