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James Mickleson has lived in a small room on the 4th floor of the Regent Hotel for the past seven years. In that time he says he has seen 17 dead bodies in and around his building, lying in front of his door or in the alley near his house.
On Friday, Mickleson witnessed something he won't forget for a long time. He saw Verna Simard fly out of a 6th floor window and hit the sidewalk in front of the Regent, head first.
"It wasn't just seeing it, it was the noise," he said. "She screamed and then it went silent."
By the time I met with Mickleson, he hadn't slept for over 24 hours, the vision of Simard’s violent death cycling in his mind. "It took me an hour to get the contents of her head off my shoes," he said.
Mickleson first met Simard two years ago when she moved into the hotel, renting one of the notoriously rough Single Room Occupancy (SRO) suites in the building. "I'm going to miss Verna, cause she always knew when I got mad, when somebody was pissed off, she intervened," he said. "She always told me I should move out of here, cause I didn't fit in."
As we spoke, Mickleson sat upright in his wheelchair, tense and alert. His mood captured the sombre atmosphere on Hastings Street during what was originally billed as a block party. As Mickelson wheeled up to a small vigil set up for Simard in front of the hotel, candles flickered, and mourners and friends laid down cigarettes and flowers.
While it isn’t known exactly what happened to Simard, who was a 50 year old Indigenous woman, many theories floated around the streets as residents participated in the fifth annual Women’s Housing March.
The only certainty seemed to be that Simard‘s death wasn’t an isolated event, but something that could only be understood in the context of extreme violence and ongoing murders of women, which have haunted the neighborhood since convicted mass murderer Robert Pickton roamed the streets.
“Nothing’s changed, if anything it seems to have gotten more harsh for the women living in SROs,” said Carol Martin, a community based victim services worker with the Downtown East Side Women’s Centre. Martin was down the street at the Carnegie Centre when Simard was killed, and Saturday afternoon she was still reeling from what she had seen when she went to the Regent after hearing of Simard's death.
People were “freaked right out” said Martin, sitting down under a small tent beside the main stage on Hastings Street, where scheduled events continued into the evening. “I was in shock, I couldn’t walk away.”
One year and one day before Martin saw Simard's body lying beside the Regent , she witnessed 22 year old Ashley Machiskinic, who was also Indigenous, fall to her death in the alley behind the same hotel.
“I witnessed her breathing her last breath,” she said. “A life is a life is a life, it doesn’t matter what colour you are or where you’re from,” said Martin. “But in reality, it does.”
A disproportionate amount of missing and murdered women across Canada, including in BC and Vancouver are Indigenous women, says Martin, who also helps organize the February 14th Women's Memorial March. And every year, she says, the list gets longer.
Like many others still stunned by Simard’s death, Martin made the time to come out to the march and events on Saturday.
“They need to build housing,” said Martin. “You can’t just do a band-aid solution to problems that have roots right down to violence, death, homelessness, residential schools, child apprehension and police brutality."