British Columbia

Vancouver's Gassy Jack statue toppled during march honouring missing Indigenous women

Police say as the annual Women's Memorial March wound past the Gassy Jack statue at 1:15 p.m., demonstrators tied ropes around the statue, pulled it down and covered it in paint.

19th-century bar owner John Deighton was married to a 12-year-old Squamish girl

Vancouver's Gassy Jack statue in Gastown was toppled and covered in red paint during the annual Women's Memorial March to honour missing Indigenous women and girls on Monday. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

A controversial statue in Vancouver's central Gastown neighbourhood was brought down during the 31st annual Women's Memorial March on Monday. 

Police say as the annual Women's Memorial March wound past Gassy Jack around 1:15 p.m., demonstrators tied ropes around the statue, pulled it down and covered it in red paint.

John Deighton — called Gassy Jack for his talkativeness — was a British-born bar owner in Gastown, where he operated a saloon beginning in the late 1860s.

His statue was given to the city as a gift on Valentine's Day in the early 1970s.

Although he's been celebrated, and was commemorated with the statue, the most commonly known story about him is missing some sordid details.

He was married to both a young Squamish woman and later her 12-year-old niece. 

The first woman, whose name has been lost to history, became ill and died. Deighton then married her young niece, Quahail-ya or Wha-halia, also known by her English name, Madeline. Deighton was 40 at the time, and according to Squamish oral history, the young child bride eventually ran away from her much-older husband when she was 15. 

Demonstrators stand over top of a statue of Gassy Jack which was torn down in Vancouver on Monday. The Gastown neighbourhood is named for the man also known as John Deighton. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Patricia Massy, owner of Indigenous bookstore Massy Books, has participated in the march for 10 years. 

Massy, who is of Cree and English descent, said the group walks by the statue every year.

"It's kind of insulting that he's just standing there, considering the legacy he has with the women of the Squamish Nation," she said.

As she neared the statue, Massy said she knew immediately Gassy Jack was coming down. 

Cheering, drumming and singing broke out as the statue came down, she said.

"It was just so empowering."

Police say no one was injured when the statue came down, and they are investigating. No arrests have been made.

Demonstrator actions 'dangerous': mayor

In a statement, Vancouver mayor Kennedy Stewart said the City of Vancouver has been consulting with the Squamish Nation on how to remove the statue and acknowledge Deighton's harmful legacy.

A spokesperson from the Squamish Nation said the nation had come to an agreement with the city to remove the statue as part of the consultations.

"The discussions were ongoing, focused on a culturally safe and respectful process that would bring dignity and healing to all involved," said nation spokesperson and councillor Wilson Williams (Sxwíxwtn) in a statement posted to Twitter.

"The Nation was in consultation with our community and the descendants of our respected ancestor Madeline — Gassy Jack's former wife. She was a courageous woman our Nation looks up to, and today has many descendants alive in our community."

The mayor was not supportive of actions taken by demonstrators Monday.

"While the statue was clearly a symbol of pain, violence and trauma associated with colonialism and violence against Indigenous women and girls, today's actions that removed it in a dangerous way undermines the ongoing work with the Squamish Nation to guide the steps towards reconciliation," the statement says.

Williams also said in his statement that the nation was "concerned about unsafe actions that risk people's personal safety" and that they were focused on finding justice for missing and murdered Indigenous women.

Walley Wargolet, executive director for the Gastown Business Improvement Society, said he hopes the society will be included in conversations with the city and Indigenous communities on this issue. 

"The focus today should be on the Women's Memorial March and its important message," Wargolet said in an emailed statement.

History of the march

The first march began in 1992, when loved ones and supporters gathered on Feb. 14 in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside (DTES) to commemorate the life of a woman who had been murdered on Powell Street.

Each year since, participants have gathered at the intersection of Hastings and Main streets, where family members of missing and murdered women speak before marching through the streets. 

Speeches are followed by a procession through the neighbourhood, with stops to commemorate where women were last seen or found.

Each year since 1992, participants have gathered at Hastings and Main in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside on Feb. 14, where family members of missing and murdered women speak before marching through the streets. Image shows the procession in 2020. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

The event is organized and led by women in the DTES because women — especially Indigenous women, girls, two spirit and trans people — face physical, mental, emotional and spiritual violence on a daily basis, organizers wrote on the event's Facebook page.

"The Feb. 14 Women's Memorial March is an opportunity to come together to grieve the loss of our beloved sisters, remember the women who are still missing, and to dedicate ourselves to justice," they said.

According to the B.C. government, one in five Indigenous women reported being a victim of violence during the early days of the pandemic.

"Sadly, the amount of missing, murdered Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit, trans continue to increase, and we are here today to honour them, their families, and to hopefully draw attention to the fact that these murdered and missing people are going unreported, uninvestigated and no charges are being laid," said Wendy Nahanee of the Squamish Nation, who is taking part in the march with her son.

"It's an honour to be here with my son and to have that ability to walk with my child, as the women who came before us who are lost did not have that option."

With files from Bridgette Watson, Liam Britten, Laura Sciarpelletti and The Canadian Press