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“Historic Plaque Goes Missing: The Second Eviction of Olaf Solheim”

June 15, 2013
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Finally! I, Stacey Bishop, had become a tiny bit, just a little, a public historian. Some of the work I had laboured over, late nights cramming for school, had made its way into the public eye. Unfortunately, hours later, it went suspiciously missing.

Years ago during my undergrad at SFU, I enrolled in a history class that focused on memory and commemoration. One class assignment was to publicly commemorate an historical event. Since it was 2006, I chose to commemorate the twenty-year anniversary of Expo ’86. For my project I focused on the evictions that occurred in roughly 15 hotels in the Downtown Eastside in order to make space for (and profit from) visiting tourists.

To commemorate this injustice, I carved a linocut to represent Olaf Solheim, an 84‑year‑old man who was evicted from the Patricia Hotel where he had lived for forty‑one years. Disoriented and uprooted, Solheim refused to eat and died weeks later. The City of Vancouver’s Medical Health Officer attributed his death to his eviction.

Now, in 2013, my linocut was selected by local artist Murray Bush as one of a series of twelve historical plaques commissioned by the City of Vancouver to commemorate labour and community struggles in the Downtown Eastside. The City, via Vancouver District Labour Council President Joey Hartman, contacted Jean Swanson of the Carnegie Community Action Project (CCAP) and offered her an option to select six plaques in order to broaden the commemoration to include community struggles.

Together, the groups produced twelve plaques to commemorate “perseverance, resistance and the struggle for inclusion in the Downtown Eastside.” Six plaques celebrated labour struggles and six highlighted: the missing and murdered women; the Chinese Head Tax; the first safe injection site; CRAB park; the fight for social housing at Woodward’s; and the Solheim plaque, which I had created, linking the Expo evictions to the struggle for housing and inclusion in the Downtown Eastside.

From the onset there was controversy about the plaques. The Woodward’s plaque in particular produced a year-long conflict between the City and the Carnegie Community Action Project centered on CCAP’s decision to use the word condo “invasion” to describe the ripple effects of the Woodward’s project. The City preferred the word “influx.” CCAP compromised, and the wording that appears on the plaque today is of a condo “influx.”

Two other plaques, commemorating the first illegal supervised IV drug injection site in the city and the Solheim plaque, were controversial only after installation. The plaque that commemorated the first illegal supervised injection site, the precursor to the now legal safe injection site on Hastings Street, was installed in front of The Lord’s Rain Mission project at 327 Carrall. The Pastor who runs the project opposes harm reduction initiatives and asked the City to move the offending plaque. CCAP protested, but the city moved the plaque to another lamppost in the area.

The Solheim plaque was installed on March 21st, 2013, and that very evening went missing. The plaque was installed on a lamppost in front of the Patricia Hotel, the same hotel from which Solheim was evicted and which is currently owned by the same man who engineered the evictions in 1986.

Since then, CCAP has repeatedly asked the City to replace the Solheim plaque and offered to raise funds to do so. The City has yet to respond to CCAP’s offer or investigate the plaque’s disappearance. Carnegie’s April 2013 newsletter included a piece about the missing plaque, comparing its recent theft to the theft of the Save-On-Meats sandwich board. CCAP is offering a $100 reward for the plaque’s recovery.

The community response to the missing plaque shows that the public commemoration of Olaf Solheim’s story is important for the Downtown Eastside. If the task was to commemorate “perseverance, resistance and the struggle for inclusion,” Solheim’s eviction and subsequent death testifies to the harsh consequences of lack of inclusion. This fight against displacement continues to loom large in a community facing rapid redevelopment and an ongoing “invasion”/“influx” of condos.

I was thrilled to have my work for a class at SFU link up with a public project commemorating people’s history. But the disappearance of the Solheim plaque is a reminder that discussions and commemorations of the past have more to do with the present than anything else. The absence of the Solheim plaque today is a reminder of the ways history is not forgotten but erased. If Solheim’s story is a cautionary tale of the dangers of displacement in a vulnerable community, the disappearance of the plaque and the apparent indifference of the City to its disappearance repeat the silencing of our city’s history, and replay the tragic eviction of the Patricia Hotel. Has Olaf Solheim’s story been erased anew?

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