Writing is Activism:* The Feminist Poetics of Amber Dawn

Dayne Ogilvie Prize Winners (from left to right): Farzana Doctor, Amber Dawn, and Debra Anderson.  By Kaparica [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

Dayne Ogilvie Prize Winners (from left to right): Farzana Doctor, Amber Dawn, and Debra Anderson.
By Kaparica [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.


By Tiffany Johnstone

Amber Dawn (1974-) is quickly becoming a Canadian icon as a Vancouver-based award-winning experimental writer, filmmaker, performance artist, and outspoken advocate for women, members of the LGBT community, and sex workers.  Dawn’s cutting edge, humanizing portraits of Vancouver’s sex work community express her longstanding activism.  She is very open about her own conflicting and overlapping identities as a retired sex worker who self-identifies as a queer feminist activist.  In literature, she is a triple threat as a writer of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction.  Her life, art, and politics infuse a feminist poetics.

Born in 1974, Dawn was raised in the small community of Crystal Beach in Fort Erie, Ontario.  She describes her parents as American hippies and war resisters who left New York and crossed the border in 1969 to settle on land in Fort Erie bought as a “sanctuary” with friends (Memoir 125-126).  After graduating from high school in 1992, Dawn felt restless and out of place in small town Ontario and, in a classic gesture of youthful ennui, left with a visiting carnival to travel around North America.  Like many youth, she gravitated to the climate and politics of the west coast where she spent many years as a Vancouver sex worker on the streets and in massage parlours, while actively engaging in community activism and securing a liberal arts degree and an MFA in creative writing at UBC (140).  She eventually retired from sex work to focus on her writing and activism.

Dawn’s film Girl on Girl: A Documentary premiered at the Vancouver Queer Film Festival in 2004 where it won the Zed People’s Choice Short Film Award, and was then screened at international festivals and incorporated into the gender studies program at Concordia University (Yuen).  Along with Vancouver writer and activist Trish Kelly, she also co-edited the short-story collection, With A Rough Tongue: Femmes Write Porn (2005).  Her first novel, the supernatural fantasy called Sub Rosa, was published in 2010 (2011 in the United States).  This volume, which was based on her own experience in sex work, went on to win a Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Debut Fiction from the Lambda Literary Foundation.  Dawn’s next effort was rather different, the editing of an anthology of horror stories, Fist of the Spider Woman: Tales of Fear and Queer Desire (2009).  It was similarly nominated for a Lambda.  In 2012, she was awarded the Dayne Ogilvie Prize presented to an emerging LGBT author by the Writers’ Trust of Canada.  From 2008 to 2012, Dawn worked as the program director at the Vancouver Queer Film Festival.  In 2013,  she began teaching ‘speculative fiction,’ an umbrella term for different types of supernatural literature, at Douglas College in New Westminster, BC.  In 2013, she published the explicitly autobiographical How Poetry Saved My Life: A Hustler’s Memoir, which reflects on sex work, activism, and art, and survival in Vancouver’s Downtown East Side (DTES), a community that she suggests we collectively exploit, repress, and stigmatize.  She remains an author, activist, and teacher.

Dawn has an impressive grassroots track record.  She promotes an intersectional feminist perspective that takes into account race, class, and sexual orientation. Her contributions challenge a city that has become notorious for sex trafficking and violence against sex workers.  She is frank about the stigmas associated with prostitution even within lesbian and activist communities.  In 1995, she was part of a feminist anti-violence collective in Vancouver that she remembers as anti-sex workers, despite her resistance (Memoir 51).  In time, however, she also witnessed feminist activists gradually acknowledge and participate in sex work advocacy (Memoir 51).  Dawn lived through the disappearance of addict and sex worker Sheila Catherine Egan (1978-?) and the horrific murder of her friend Shelby Tom (1963-2003).  The death of Tom, an Asian transgender sex worker, highlighted the complex forms of prejudice experienced by sex workers.

In response to the difficulties of being taken seriously as an advocate of sex worker rights, Dawn carved out what she describes as her own multifaceted “ghetto feminism, a street social justice” (Memoir 46).  This saw her doing outreach work during outbreaks of diseases such as hepatitis and syphilis and working with immigrant sex workers (Memoir 52).  She participated in the Change the [Criminal] Code Committee, an activist group that championed decriminalizing prostitution (Memoir 53).  In 2004, 2006, 2007, and 2008, Dawn travelled throughout the United States with the Sex Workers’ Art Show, an activist performance art group run by participants in the sex industry (Yuen).  She has won multiple awards for activism, including the Hero of the Year award from the Vancouver LGBT newspaper, Xtra! West in 2008.

Her landmark volume How Poetry Saved My Life joins modern classics such as Angela Davis’ Angela Davis: An Autobiography (1974), Maria Campbell’s Halfbreed (1973), and Evelyn Lau’s Runaway: Diary of a Street Kid (1989), which mark autobiography as a site of personal and collective liberation.  How Poetry Saved My Life challenges readers to rethink assumptions about sex work, our cities and ourselves.  Combining poetry and essays, it avoids a homogenous or linear narrative structure.  Very importantly, she refuses to succumb to clichés of sensationalism or sympathy despite the powerfully dramatic story of personal survival and artistic and political growth.  Stopping in the midst of her account of a narrow escape from a violent John shortly before she retires from the street trade, she asks the “dear reader” not “to worry about [her] life” (Memoir 117).  She continues, “[r]emember that pity is an emotion that doesn’t really get us anywhere.  And we (you and I) will get somewhere with this, won’t we?” (Memoir 117).  Dawn interrupts the passive voyeurism and consumption involved with the sex trade, making us recognize how easy it is to be complicit in dehumanizing sex workers.  Instead, she invites identification and engagement with the daily realities of women in the trade, and a sense of the complexity—the ups and downs, the strengths and vulnerabilities—that she lived and witnessed first hand.

In the fallout of endemic violence against women in the DTES, with its dozens of related serial killings and unsolved disappearances, Dawn asks her audiences to recognize that challenging collective trauma requires acknowledgement and mourning (Memoir 117).  This does not mean passive (and passing) judgment or sympathy, but rather sustained listening, debate, and dialogue.  In a move that echoes influential humanitarians such as Canadian Jean Vanier (1928-) and even Mother Teresa (1910-1997), she argues in her essay entitled “How to Bury Our Dead,” that humanizing society’s most stigmatized is the first step towards restoring our common humanity and forging a humane society.  Silence in the face of violence is in fact complicity and Dawn’s story invites us to break that silence.



Bartley, Jim. “Amber Dawn’s New Memoir a Subtly Pitched Call to Arms.” The Globe and Mail. Phillip Crawley. 24 May. 2013. Web. 16 July. 2013.

Dawn, Amber. “Does a Lesbian Need a Vagina Like a Fish Needs a Bicycle?  Or, Would the ‘Real’ Lesbian Please Stand Up!” Canadian Woman Studies 24.2 (2005): 92-101.

– – -. How Poetry Saved My Life: A Hustler’s Memoir. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2013.

– – -. Interview by Leah Horlick. Radar Productions. N.p. 6 March. 2013. Web. 16 July. 2013.

—. Sub Rosa. Vancouver: Arsenal Press, 2010.

Takeuchi, Craig. “Amber Dawn Leaves Vancouver Queer Film Festival for Literary Life.” Straight.com. Vancouver Free Press. 27 August. 2012. 16 July. 2013.

Yuen, Joanna. “Joanna Yuen on Amber Dawn. Amber Dawn Dances the Vivacious Life of a Queer Editor. Joanna Yuen Spotlights her Amazing Talents.” Douglass College. N.p. October. 2010. Web.  16 July. 2013.


*This quote comes from Leah Horlick’s interview with Amber Dawn in which Dawn states: “Writing is activism. There’s no other reason for me to write nonfiction, I think, than making some sort of statement that I hope will help the communities that I have in mind when I’m writing.”

BC’s 40th Provincial Election: Democracy and Representation

Kelsey Wrightson and Grace Lore


Image from BC Government Newsroom


On 14 May, 2013, Christy Clark became the first women to be elected as Premier of British Columbia.  Although she was not reelected to her own seat in Vancouver Point Grey, Clark’s poll-defying victory was historic.  Clark joins the ranks of current Premiers Allyson Redford (Alberta) and Kathy Dunderdale (Newfoundland) who first became premier as elected party leaders before receiving an election mandate from provincial voters.  Whether Ontario’s Kathleen Wynn can do the same remains to be seen. In May 2013, the number of women provincial and territorial leaders was unprecedented in the entirety of Canadian political history.  What makes Clark’s victory even more remarkable is that polls in the weeks and months prior predicted a NDP majority; the Liberal victory, where the party actually gained four seats surprised observers and the majority parties.   While Clark led her party to victory, she lost her own seat to NDP newcomer lawyer David Eby.  She now must win another seat in order to enter the Legislature.  Ben Stewart, the former cabinet minister and MLA-elect for the historically safe Liberal seat of Westside-Kelowna, has resigned, and Clark is likely to win on 10 July 2013.

The May 2013 election also saw a slight increase in women MLAs.  In 2009, 24 women were elected to the Legislature; women’s successes in three by-elections increased their number to 27 by dissolution.  The 2013 election introduced 30, or 34%, surpassing the so called “critical mass” necessary to achieve substantive representation of women’s interest and perspectives.  Seven Liberals and four NDP were elected for the first time.  Nineteen incumbents retained their seats, including Vicki Huntington re-elected as an Independent for Delta South – an unprecedented achievement in BC’s party-dominated politics.

While there is good news for the overall representation of women within the legislature, there is still much room for improvement.   Women remain under-represented among candidates and elected officials, scarcely a third for either of the major parties.   Further, of the 19 seats the Liberals held at dissolution where the incumbent was not running again, 15 candidacies were filled by men and only four by women. Perhaps as a result of this inequity, 50% of Liberal women won their seats in comparison to 63% of Liberal men.  The NDP had better success rates: women won slightly more frequently (39%) than their men (38%). At current levels of nomination, even if women were placed in winnable or held ridings and elected at equal rates, equality in representation would not be achieved.

Of course, women are not the only under represented group in the political arena and while women’s voices may add an important perceptive, women are not a homogenous group. Their experiences are further defined by (dis)ability, class, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and other characteristics.   In this election, the NDP ran 19 visible minority candidates – 14 men (one of whom was successful) and five women (three victories).  The Liberals ran 18 candidates from visible minorities – 11 men and seven women, with five men and two women victorious.

Just as this election marked a new high for women’s representation, individuals with visible disabilities have unprecedented success in the new legislative assembly.  All three of the Liberals with visible disabilities won: cabinet minister Stephanie Cadieux and newcomers, Paralympic gold-medalist Michelle Stilwel and former Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan.

It remains to be seen what these shifts in representation may mean for BC residents. Increasing the range of voices is important, but whether this can counter the neo-liberal political trend that disproportionately injures women and other disadvantaged populations is unclear.  Government policies need a major make-over if they are to reflect the needs of all citizens.

**Note: this article reflects the changes after Selina Robinson took the seat from Liberal Steven following a 4 June, 2013 judicial recount in Coquitlam-Maillardville***


Sandra Lovelace-Nicholas

Sandra Lovelace Nicholas (April 15, 1948-)

By Kelsey Wrightson

Sandra Lovelace-Nicholas Photo from Government of Canada

Sandra Lovelace-Nicholas Photo from Government of Canada

The life and career of Sandra Lovelace Nicholas exemplifies how a single individual can transform democratic governance. Lovelace Nicholas worked within government institutions to tackle injustice and discrimination, especially against Indigenous women and children. In the 1970s and 1980s, she challenged the gendered discrimination of the Canadian Indian Act. Subsequently, she continued her battle for justice and equality as the second Aboriginal woman appointed to the Canadian Senate.

Lovelace Nicholas has had many different careers. She studied at Fredericton’s St. Thomas University for three years and later trained in residential construction. Prior to her Senate appointment she worked as a treaty researcher, adult care program director, training coordinator and carpenter. However, she is best known for her political activism for which she received membership to the Order of Canada (1990) and a Governor General’s Award in Commemoration of the Persons Case (1992).

Lovelace Nicholas’ objections to the Indian Act were rooted in personal experiences and observations. She was born in New Brunswick’s Tobique First Nation (Maliseet) in 1948, twelve years before First Nations men and women were allowed to legally vote federally (1960). Raised by a single mother, she grew up with two sisters, surrounded by aunts and cousins. On the Tobique First Nation she experienced the pervasive poverty and prejudice associated with the Indian Act.

In 1970 she married non-First Nations American Airman Bernie Lovelace and moved to California. With the end of that marriage, she returned to the reserve only to be denied housing, education, and health care under the Indian Act: marriage between an Aboriginal woman with Indian status and a non-status man entailed automatic loss of status and rights for her and her children. She could not regain status, even if she divorced her husband or was widowed. In contrast, Aboriginal men marrying outside their community paid no such penalty. Unable to access band services or housing, she was forced to live with her young son in a tent. In 1977 she joined a group of women who non-violently occupied the Tobique band office for four months, demanding an end to discrimination.

The New Brunswickers were not alone. Many Aboriginal women’s groups and their allies opposed the Indian Act. In the early 1970s, supported by the Report of the federal Royal Commission on the Status of Women (1970), Indian Rights for Indian Women and the Native Women’s Association of Canada campaigned to change the law. They found themselves opposing both the federal government and many men in their own communities. In 1971, Jeannette Corbiere Lavell (b 1942), an Ontario Anishnabe and member of the Wikwemikonge First Nation, initiated legal action against Canada (Lavell v Attorney General of Canada 1971). She was followed by Six Nations Mohawk Yvonne Bedard (Bedard v Isaac 1971). Lavell won on appeal and Bedard’s victory depended on this precedent. However, in 1973, when Ottawa appealed the cases to the Supreme Court of Canada, discrimination against women was upheld.

Lovelace Nicholas nevertheless took her own case to the Supreme Court in  Sandra Lovelace v Canada (1977-1981). Encouraged by the women in her community, she followed earlier Indigenous precedent to take advantage of the reputation and authority of the United Nations, petitioning its Human Rights Committee in 1979. Two years later, the Committee found Canada in breach of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Despite this condemnation, the UN lacked the substantive power to change Canadian law and Lovelace Nicholas was denied remedy.

In addition to legal intervention, Lovelace Nicholas joined activists in mobilizing public campaigns to raise the consciousness and consciences of Canadians. In July 1979, she joined 50 women and children from Tobique in a 100 mile march to Ottawa. The Canadian government found it increasingly difficult to defend the status quo. In 1982 the Constitution, newly repatriated from the United Kingdom, was amended to include the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Section 15, hard fought for by feminists, asserted the equality of every individual under the law (Kome). Finally, in 1985, despite the opposition of many male-dominated reserves, Bill C-31 revised the Indian Act to reduce (although not eliminate) gender discrimination.

In 2005, Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin, who was trying to improve relations with First Nations, appointed Lovelace Nicholas as a Liberal Senator for New Brunswick. She followed the Saskatchewan pioneer, Cree-Chinese Lillian Dyck by only a few months. In 2013, Lovelace Nicholas sat on the Senate Standing Committees on Aboriginal Peoples, and Agriculture and Forestry. Her speeches regularly address education, Idle No More, and gender-based violence. On 14 February 2013 she called for a national inquiry into Canada’s missing and murdered women, and reprimanded the Conservative government of Stephen Harper for leaving resolutions to violence against Indigenous women to the police:  “in light of all the problems and horrifying accounts of the deteriorating relationships between RCMP and Aboriginal women, how can their approach to dealing with these cases be effective at all?”(Lovelace-Nicholas,14 February 2013). Lovelace Nicholas was also outspoken in her criticism of Bill C-27, the First Nations’ Financial Transparency Act, first introduced in 2011. Like many Indigenous activists, she condemned the failure to consult with affected communities.

Over the course of more than thirty years, Lovelace Nicholas has simultaneously challenged the Canadian government and male-dominated Indigenous leadership. She worked within the democratic system, using its tools to bring about reform. In the second decade of the 21st century, another generation of Indigenous activists, often women, returned to the Canadian streets in the Idle No More movement. Lovelace Nicholas, like Dyck, proved sympathetic to this shift in tactics.  Both called for an alliance of elders, youth and women in a renewed quest for equality. The result suggests continuity rather than disruption in the long history of Indigenous women’s protest in Canada.




Centre for Canadian Studies, Mount Allison University, “Sandra Lovelace- Native Activist” 2001

Holmes, Joan. Bill C-31, equality or disparity? The effects of the new Indian Act on native women. Ottawa: Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women, 1987.

Jamieson, Kathleen. Indian Women and the Law in Canada: Citizens Minus. Ottawa: Advisory Council on the Status of Women, 1978.

Kome, Penney.  The Taking of Twenty-Eight: Women Challenge the Constitution. Toronto: Women’s Press, 1983.

Lawrence, Bonita. “Real” Indians and Others: Mixed-Blood Urban Native Peoples and Indigenous Nationhood. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004.

Lovelace, Sandra “Questions to the Senate Thursday, February 14th 2013,” 1st Session, 41st Parliament, Volume 148, Issue 138

Lovelace, Sandra, “Questions to the Senate Monday March 25, 2013″ 1st Session, 41st Parliament, Volume 148, Issue 148,

New Federation House, Native Leaders of Canada, New Federation House, 2009

Royal Commission of Aboriginal Peoples, “Indian Act: Indian Women,” in Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, vol. 1, Looking Forward Looking Back. Ottawa: The Commission, 1996. 300-302.