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Downtown Eastside residents challenge street vending law

A lawyer for the Pivot Legal Society says the bylaw infringes on a person’s right to security.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Street vending made it possible for Susan Aleck to leave the sex trade.

Ms. Aleck was 14 the first time she sold her body. She wasn't trying to strike it rich – she chuckles as she says she never made her millions. She was simply doing what it took to survive.

Decades later she would follow the lead of other Downtown Eastside residents and turn to vending, selling her old clothes and books on the street. But the plan took an unexpected turn in February, 2012, when she was given a $250 ticket for violating Vancouver's street vending bylaw.

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Ms. Aleck, now 50, testified Tuesday in a constitutional challenge of the bylaw and told provincial court her life turned for the better when she transitioned from survival sex work to survival street vending. Four members of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, each of whom received a bylaw infraction ticket, are behind the constitutional challenge.

Douglas King, a lawyer with the Pivot Legal Society who is representing the four individuals including Ms. Aleck, said the bylaw is unconstitutional and infringes on Charter rights, namely, a person's right to security.

The trial is expected to run for three days and Ms. Aleck was the first person to testify.

She told the court she began drinking at the age of 6. She said she was abused at home and started consuming alcohol so she "wouldn't feel the hits."

She set out on her own at age 14, moving to Vancouver from the Interior. She hoped to leave the violence she endured not only at home but also at residential school behind.

Ms. Aleck said she long suffered from alcoholism, but has been sober for four years. She said she still grapples with some health issues but has become more engaged in the community.

Ms. Aleck said she gave up sex work for street vending because the latter is far safer. She said sex work can turn violent in an instant.

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On a good day she said she can make $20 to $30 while vending. On a bad day she might only make $4. She collects disability payments and the rent at her single-room occupancy hotel is $375 a month.

"I'm just trying to get by, like everybody else," she told the court.

Ms. Aleck said when she received the ticket she didn't know it was necessary to apply for a permit, or that such a thing even existed. However, she said she wouldn't have been able to pay the fees involved anyway.

She said the way the street vending process typically works is that people occupy a space on the sidewalk and spread out their items.

Robert LeBlanc, the lawyer for the city, asked Ms. Aleck whether some vendors take up massive amounts of space and leave little room on the sidewalk for others.

She said people have manners and the process is generally well run.

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Louise Lagimodiere, 70, was the second person to testify. She shared a similar story of residential-school abuse, before ultimately arriving in Vancouver.

Ms. Lagimodiere, who was diagnosed with cancer about six years ago, told the court she was given her bylaw infraction ticket in April, 2012, when she was trying to trade one of her items to another vendor for food.

Ms. Lagimodiere said she sometimes makes $10 or $20 vending.

If she couldn't be a street vendor she said she would "probably sell pills on the street."

"How much money I make, it's keeping me surviving," she said.

Pivot Legal has previously accused Vancouver police of disproportionately targeting Downtown Eastside residents for bylaw infractions. It has said statistics show 95 per cent of all vending-related tickets are handed out in the neighbourhood.

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