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Woodward’s Squat

Julie Chapman

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Woodward’s Squat: My Story

The Woodward’s squat was one of the most prominent acts of civil disobedience in Vancouver history. This is my personal story about being part of it.

I ended up in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver (DTES) after a ten-year, two-sons relationship ended. I found a temporary shelter that was safe where I could sleep overnight.

A friend I had met told me about a rally that was going to take place soon in the DTES. It was being led by an organization called the Anti-Poverty Committee (APC). Ivan Drury was the leader and advocate for people in the DTES wanting to get into social and low-income housing. The rally was to demand the government make The Woodward’s building into one hundred percent social housing units.

Woodward’s department store closed its doors permanently after declaring bankruptcy in 1992. The Woodward’s building remained empty for eleven years.

I went with my friend to the rally, on the corner of Abbott and Hastings Street. There were approximately one hundred and fifty people at the rally, many of them from the media. Ivan Drury from the APC let the media know about the rally ahead of time, so there would be people present who already knew what the objective of the rally was: making the Woodward’s building into one hundred percent social housing.

There were already approximately eight to ten people inside the Woodward’s building squatting on the second floor. They entered via a boarded up window. To get to the second floor, people had to go up a ladder and climb into a window. That was the start of the squat.

The police ended up breaking up the rally. It was a peaceful rally until the Vancouver police showed up and started grabbing people.

The police turned a peaceful rally into a fight for people’s lives, taking people away in violent ways. Even though the rally wasn’t in any way or form meant to initiate fighting or make the demonstration into something other than a peaceful demand for social housing. The police arrested several people for trespassing on private property.1

Woodward’s redevelopment was a large-scale, mixed-use project encompassing almost a city block. It was one of the most complex mixed-use projects in the city’s history. It integrated market and non-market housing, food and drug stores, retail spaces, a public plaza/atrium with a community basketball hoop, community non-profit space, federal and civic offices, and a daycare, all anchored by Simon Fraser University’s School for the Contemporary Arts.

Fast forward to today. I moved into Woodward’s twenty years ago and I am still living there. There are two tall towers that are also Woodward’s; however, they are not social or low-income places. Every day low-, medium- and high-income people are crossing paths. On a wall outside of the atrium of Nesters Market, it states that Woodward's social housing and the Woodward’s towers are an experiment to see how we all live together and share the same spaces, even though we are in different tax brackets. I am not surprised that we all carry on without conflicts. We, people with lived experience of homelessness and poverty, many who are also trauma survivors, have been living in the same community with middle- to high-income people for years and co-existing peacefully.

Julie Chapman

Julie Chapman is a born-and-raised Vancouverite who now lives and works in the Downtown Eastside. She is a survivor of childhood trauma. Chapman was a volunteer with Sex Workers United Against Violence for nine years and is co-author of Opioids: A Survivor’s Guide. She is a member of megaphone’s Speakers Bureau, and is a published poet and writer. She has been a Megaphone vendor since 2003.


1 For more information and context, see the Woodsquat Book, which was published as a special issue of West Coast Line, Fall/Winter 2003/’04 and is available as a downloadable PDF here.