Indigenous woman says Vancouver police lost her late mother’s ashes in street cleanup

British Columbia

A Downtown Eastside resident feels like she lost her late mother a second time after Vancouver Police Department officers and city workers trashed a suitcase she says contained the deceased woman’s ashes.

Stacey Mcmillan cries on the shoulder of her life partner Kelly Welsh after recounting her story alleging Vancouver Police Department and city cleaning crew members trashed a suitcase containing her mother's ashes.(Susana da Silva/CBC)

A Downtown Eastside resident feels like she lost her late mother a second time after Vancouver Police Department officers and city workers trashed a suitcase she says contained the deceased woman's ashes.

DTES advocates say stories like this are all too common and are calling for a change in the way the possessions of marginalized street people are dealt with by the city and the Vancouver police.

Stacey Mcmillan said she was sitting near the tattered blue plastic tarp that is her home at Hastings and Main streets on May 11 when police and city workers started clearing items from the sidewalk.

Mcmillan says she became alarmed when she discovered her nearby suitcase was gone. It had an envelope with a medicine bag in it.

"It contained my mother's ashes," she said.

Her mother died last fall.

Downtown Eastside street resident Stacey Mcmillan sits where the suitcase she says contained her mother's ashes was taken by VPD and City of Vancouver cleaners. (Susana da Silva/CBC)

Mcmillan said she saw the suitcase in the back of a city works truck with other items collected from the street.

She said she tried to retrieve it, but Vancouver Police Department officers wouldn't let her climb into the back of the truck.

The VPD says it retrieved and searched the suitcase while Mcmillan watched, but Mcmillan says much of the contents had fallen out.

The ashes were gone.

Officers searched a second time at a city works yard, but the result was the same.

"It feels like I've lost her twice," Mcmillan said.

No ashes found

The VPD's account of the May 11 incident differs from Mcmillan's.

VPD media spokesperson Const. Tania Visintin said police and city workers gave street residents at Main and Hastings fair warning before collecting refuse during that morning's cleanup.

A city worker noticed what he thought was discarded luggage and put it in the city truck. Mcmillan tried to retrieve it, Visintin said, but a VPD officer stopped her.

"It was for her safety. He didn't want her falling into the back of the truck."

VPD spokesperson Const. Tania Visintin said no ashes were found despite two searches of Mcmillan's suitcase by police.(Susana da Silva/CBC)

"The officer actually climbed onto the truck, got the luggage out, opened it up and showed her there's no ashes in there," Visintin said.

The luggage was taken to a city transfer station. Meanwhile, Mcmillan insisted there were ashes in the luggage, so police drove to the transfer station to double-check.

"There were no ashes and 'nothing of value inside,' " Visintin said.

Police say they weren't sure the suitcase was hers, so couldn't simply give it back.

The Pivot Legal Society says it has catalogued at least 17 complaints against the police from Downtown Eastside residents and harm reduction workers and will be launching a group complaint Thursday on their behalf, although Macmillan's accusation is not part of it.

'This has become normalized'

Vancouver ALIVE executive director Scott Clark knows of the tension between Downtown Eastside street residents and VPD members during cleanup.

He witnesses it every morning when he goes to work in his office at Main and Hastings streets and says he sees a larger picture beyond Mcmillan.

"It's callous. It's inhumane. But this has become normalized in the City of Vancouver on the Downtown Eastside," he said.

Vancouver ALIVE executive director Scott Clark says callous and inhumane behaviour toward Downtown Eastside street residents has become normalized.(Wawmeesh Hamilton/CBC)

"These are disposable people and what they have is disposable, and it shows how Vancouver and the police department treat urban Indigenous people."

Clark said suitcases such as Mcmillan's might look like junk to police and street cleaners, but they're valuable to street people, he said.

"It's sacred stuff to them. It's all they have in the world — and it gets taken from them when they're sleeping and thrown away."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Wawmeesh Hamilton is an award winning associate producer with CBC Vancouver. He produces the nationally syndicated column Urban Nations: stories about urban Indigenous people across Canada. His work about Indigenous people and reconciliation has also been published on CBC Radio, CBC Online and CBC Indigenous. His radio documentary Not Alone won the 2020 jack Webster Award for best feature and enterprise reporting. Wawmeesh graduated from the UBC Graduate School of Journalism in 2016. He lives in Vancouver and is a member of the Hupacasath First Nation in Port Alberni, B.C.

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