Wednesday, September 27, 2023

My time as a care worker and how it made me an anthropologist.

This story is inspired by a project organized by the Society for the Anthropology of Work: "Jobs we had."

Work was simply something most of us knew was waiting for us where I'm from. I grew up in Prince Rupert, BC, a working-class resource town on the northern coast. The main industries were commercial fishing and forestry. It was a port and rail terminus. We were all proud of the fact it was the deepest ice-free port in North America and closer by several hundred miles to Asia then any other west coast port.

My father always spoke about waking up one morning to see his own father standing there beside his bed.  
It’s late, get up.” 
My father recalls being reluctant to do so.  
His own dad then says “either go to school or go to work, which is it?”  
My father said "work."  
OK his Dad said, they are waiting for you down at the plant, get going.”  
So, at 12 my father began his own career of work that lasted well into his 70s.

In the early 1970s when I was 12 my father didn’t provide this option to me, but he did take me with him every summer on his commercial fishing boat (Menzies 2019). First, I just hung out, but as I grew older, I soon was pulling my own weight as one of the five-man crew. At 16 I got paid the same as any man on the boat – which was a lot for a kid. This was a world where school was an interference with work. The schedule, the teachers, the lessons all disrupted the ability to work on the boat. I often found myself leaving school early in the summer or taking mid-winter breaks from school to mesh with the fishing seasons.

My father had married a schoolteacher and -given his own work which kept him away for long periods of time- our mother was the largest influence on our thinking as young children. She valued learning. She never had the advantage of a full post-secondary education, teachers in those days merely required a year or two of training post high school to qualify. So, my desire to just make money fishing was moderated by her expectations I would go to university.

Taking other jobs in my twenties was more a quirk of character than a matter of necessity. My father expected me to work on his boat, or at least a boat. However, during the 1980s I worked a series of part time and odd jobs that may not have shaped me, but their memories stayed long after their meager economic effects had dissipated. I suspect my father considered these jobs in a manner similar to how he thought about my meandering educational pursuits which took me through three undergraduate universities and then two post-graduate locations. He would always tell me there was a spot on the boat when I was ready to settle down and get serious.

My longest job as a student was a three-year stint as a part time community lay worker at a church run social housing facility for the ‘hard-to-house’ in the downtown eastside of Vancouver. At the time governments throughout North America were deinstitutionalizing mental health facilities. As they shut down large institutions there were few places for people to go. Places like Victory House (with its Orwellian name) filled the breach. I made $6.10 an hour, a full dollar more than I had been paid at a fly-by-night dogfish processing plant I also worked at. The working conditions were not great (not bad either), but I enjoyed working there.

Victory House was run by an agency of the Anglican Church (today called The Bloom Group). I had found the job on a job board at the old Canada Manpower office on Main, just north of 41st Avenue in Vancouver. In those days the federal government ran brick and mortar job finding services.

Victory House wasn’t my first community housing project I worked for – I did a number of part time 24 hour shifts in other smaller residential care facilities, but I found the full days hard to integrate into my university studies at Simon Fraser University (1983-88). The shift work and fact I could seemingly work as many shifts as I wanted kept me coming back to Victory House.

Before I say more, I should enumerate some of the other jobs I had during this period. I worked in a dog fish processing plant for $5/hr (minimum federal rate at the time to be listed on the Manpower job boards). There were about 50 people working in the plant, mostly Vietnamese immigrants, but a few local Canadians like myself. We unloaded fishboats, gutted, skinned, and packed for shipping, the dogfish. Dogfish are small sharks. They stink like ammonia after sitting a few days being processed. Most of my clothes from that work had to be tossed away afterwards. I liked the job but got fired for trying to organize a union. Actually, less dramatic, the boss told me he would skip calling me in for a week or two until I came to my senses. My Dad rescued me by taking me out deepwater longlining for halibut where I made more in ten days than I had the previous ten weeks.

I worked at the SFU bookstore as a part time door guard a couple of times – besides the surveillance aspect of the job (which I didn’t care for), it was just boring even if well paid at a union rate.

I was hired by a university union to write a history based on their records – I failed miserably at that, a job I would be better suited to do today.

I even was a teaching assistant in my senior year at SFU. Most notable for that experience was having a member of Direct Action (who was out of jail on day parole) in my tutorial group. Another memorable moment came when the prof, knowing of my Indigenous identity, asked me if he should pass another First Nations student even though their written submissions were substandard.

Then there were the jobs I applied for but didn’t get. Like the production line job in a paper bag factory. I seemed to do okay at the interview, but when they brought back the next day to try I out I had tossed on a tweed coat. To this day I am positive that suit coat cost me the job (and perhaps kept me heading toward an academic position). Hired, fired, or passed over, there seemed to be a lot of jobs floating around in the 1980s despite it being a period of double-digit unemployment through the mid years of the decade.

It was the Victory House job through the mid-1980s that most stays in my memory. It brought me into a part of the city that I had known through the stories told by my parents and from personal experience as a young man working on a fishboat that was based out of the Vancouver waterfront several weeks each year in the 1970s and early 1980s. But that experience didn’t really show me much about the place that was the downtown eastside in the 1980s.

My father’s downtown eastside dated to the 1950s and 1960s when it was a vibrant working class and commercial district of Vancouver. Our family photo album includes pictures of him in a zoot suit taken by a street photographer of the day. But even then, it was a place where people washed up. Dad also talks about going there to find an older sister and trying to bring her home. By the 1970s and 1980s the more upbeat part of the downtown had shifted and the area around Main and Hastings was becoming the zone of poverty and hardship that it is known for today, filled with social service agencies like the one I worked for during my SFU undergrad years.

During my lunch and coffee breaks I would walk around the area – Victory House was then located on Powell Street near Oppenheimer Park. Across the street was a sushi place and a Japanese corner store (vestiges of the pre-world war II Japanese neighbourhood). There was also a half dozen strip clubs, fruit and vegetable stores, and a short walk away an outlet of the local Woodward’s Department Store.

Amongst our staff was a former Catholic priest, a couple members of a lay Christian brotherhood, a phd student in English literature, and a handful of undergrad students like me. There was also a manager, one or two social workers, and a sprinkling of other specialized staff whose presence rarely registered except when they had a meeting scheduled for residents. The entire place operated with a philosophy of constant improvement for our residents who were seen as visiting Victory House temporarily on their pathway toward recuperation.

Early on in my employment one of the senior staff sat me down and explained the philosophy: “Our residents have been through a lot of tough places and they end up here because no one else will provide them housing. Maybe they start in triage to stabilize. Then they come here. Their first room assignment is one of the dorms and they have obligations to meet about attending meetings and meals together. As they gain in stability, they move to one of our semi-independent units. From there we seek housing in the community for them where they will live independently.”

Reality was quite different. Most of the residents living in the building were long term permanent residents. I also worked there long enough to see the constant returning of people who had been sent forward to live independently, ended up in crisis, lost their housing, and then came back to Victory House. This grounding in the contradictions between expressed philosophies and material reality played, I am sure, a big role in my unwillingness as a professional anthropologist to simply accept what people tell me as an accurate expression of reality no matter how strongly they might believe it or passionately they express it.

My time there also exposed me to the police officers working that beat. They would come into the office looking for residents from time to time. One officer, after taking the statement of a resident who had been beaten and robbed, turned to me and said: “today’s victim, tomorrow’s suspect.” While it may have reflected that the officer’s reality, his causal disregard left an impression on me in a way that motivated me to care for people without discounting their right to care even if they may have some personal culpability. If anything our world needs more care, not less.

The most striking memory though is when the parents of a young man came to visit their son. My job was to meet them and then go find their son in the building and bring him to the office for the visit. I was at the time about the same age as their son. They were dressed as though in Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes. They sat uncomfortable, eyes hastily wiped clear of tears, trying to come to terms with the situation. Their son came to visit with them but was mostly uncommunicative. Their attempt to maintain a sense of normalcy in a rundown old hotel converted to mental health housing and operated by poorly trained young staff underscored for me a structural fault in our society. How could we allow people to be housed in the worst housing possible, paint cheery slogans on the walls, and fundamentally abandon them to chance. Any ideas I had about going into social work evaporated in that moment and through my experience working at Victory House.

I found myself instead pursuing a career in anthropology.

My approach to anthropology is rooted in having worked at Victory House. After working there I became involved in a student led community-based study of the downtown eastside (Menzies and Butler 2021). That project, which was like a job but (for me) unpaid was made feasible for having worked in the downtown eastside. It also contributed to my views on engaged university-community team research (a model that I continue to use to this day).

While there are many things that has made me the kind of anthropologist I am, my work at Victory House played a key role in shaping my ideas of empathy, care, structural inequality, and the need for life long social justice advocacy.

References Cited.

    2021. Menzies, Charles R. and Caroline Butler. “Centering Community Knowledge in Resource Management Research.” BC Studies no. 209 (Spring 2021): 103-124.
    2019. Charles R. Menzies. “Sea Legs: Learning to Labor on the Water.” Anthropology of Work Review. DOI: 10.1111/awr.12172.

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