Longtime sex workers advocate Jamie Lee Hamilton dead at 64
Activist one of the first to raise alarms over disappearances of sex workers in Downtown Eastside
Jamie Lee Hamilton, a longtime advocate for Vancouver's sex worker and transgender communities, died in the city early Monday morning. She was 64.
David C. Jones, a local actor and director, said Hamilton died at 1:36 am with close friends at her bedside at Cottage Hospice. She moved into the care facility in East Vancouver's Burrard View Park on Dec. 9, a few months after learning she had colon cancer.
"She was an important woman," Jones told CBC News. "She was infuriating, but so steadfast and so passionately supportive of people who needed support."
On Saturday, two days before her death, Hamilton's friends and family, including Non-Partisan Association Coun. Colleen Hardwick, gathered at her bedside to witness her baptism. At her request, they sang Amazing Grace.
Entering sex work as a teenager, Hamilton went on to become a fierce advocate for the rights of sex trade workers. In 1996, she famously dumped 67 high heels at the steps of Vancouver City Hall to protest the lack of response to the 67 women who had gone missing in the Downtown Eastside until that point.
At the time, Hamilton and others raised the prospect of an active serial killer in the community, years before police discovered Port Coquitlam pig farmer Robert Pickton had killed scores of women from the Downtown Eastside.
Hamilton later became a key voice in the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
"She was always ahead of the rest of us on any issue," said homeless advocate and longtime friend Judy Graves. "She fought for everyone."
Graves credits this perspective to the painful adversity Hamilton faced throughout her life, first as an Indigenous child in social housing, then as a sex worker and transsexual person. Though the pair sometimes found themselves at loggerheads, Graves said they could always learn from each other. "[But] I think I learned more.
"The city has lost its most fierce advocate," she added.
Several times throughout her public life, Hamilton unsuccessfully attempted the crossover from activist to politician, including in 1996 when she became the first transgender person to seek public office in Canada in a failed bid for city council.
In the hours since the announcement of her death, tributes from activists and politicians across Vancouver have poured in.
So sad to hear that our dear friend Jamie Lee Hamilton has died. We just had a great visit with her a couple of days ago at Cottage Hospice. Jamie was a force of nature. Let's keep up her fight for sex workers to be treated with dignity and respect and repeal C36.<br>RIP old friend <a href="https://t.co/HUwhsHUkiS">pic.twitter.com/HUwhsHUkiS</a>—@Svend4MP
I can believe I wake up and Jamie Lee is gone. Rest In Peace friend. <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/vanpoli?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#vanpoli</a> <a href="https://t.co/rNxyKq1qKH">pic.twitter.com/rNxyKq1qKH</a>—@sarahblyth
Saddened to hear of passing of Jamie Lee Hamilton. She was heavily involved in civic life advocating for missing women, as well as running for office. She was also a staunch defender of parks & a regular at our Park Board meetings. I always loved seeing her & talking issues. RIP. <a href="https://t.co/s6VffYl7vx">https://t.co/s6VffYl7vx</a>—@sarahkirby_yung
Despite public acclaim, Hamilton never veered far from controversy.
Notably, in 1997, she opened Grandma's House on Pandora Street, a safe house where, Hamilton said, sex workers in the Downtown Eastside could grab a meal and see street nurses. However, three years later, the police shut down the operation, claiming it was being used as a "common bawdy house."
"She frustrated people, but she also activated people," said Jones. "She deserves to be remembered for that."