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Take Back The Night Vancouver: 1978 -1985 Herstory

By Joan

San Francisco, USA, 1978. The slogan “Take Back the Night” is first used as a theme for a national protest march down San Francisco’s pornography strip. The march took place at night. Take Back the Night was a profound symbolic statement of our commitment to stopping the tide of violence against women in all arenas, and our demand that the perpetrators of such violence — from rapists to pornographers to batters — be held responsible for their actions and made to change.

Five Thousand women had gathered in San Francisco from November 17 – 19, 1978 to attend a conference organised by Women Against Violence in Pornography and Media entitled “Feminist Perspectives on Pornography.” The TBTN protest happened on one of the evenings of the conference.

As night fell, 3000 marchers gathered to hear Andrea Dworkin’s “Exhortation to March.” Then we wound our way toward Broadway, which was crowded with tourists and neon signs advertising live sex shows, adult bookstores and pornographic theatres.

Chanting slogans such as “No more profits off women’s bodies”, we filled the street entirely, blocking off traffic and completely occupying the Broadway strip for three blocks. For an hour, and for the first time ever, Broadway belonged not to the barkers, pimps or pornographers, but instead to the songs, voices, rage and vision of thousands of women.

(Source: TAKE BACK THE NIGHT, edited by Laura Lederer)

* * * *

A woman from Vancouver Rape Relief was part of this historic event. She brought back her memories for future use. Since that time in San Francisco, women around the world have organized protests naming them TAKE BACK THE NIGHT or RECLAIM THE NIGHT. Vancouver’s herstory of TBTN demonstrations is exciting and proud.

All have been “women only” protests to show that all men are responsible for the violence done to women, and to show we will walk the streets unafraid, alone, without a male escort. I use the term “women” to mean females from birth to death. If men want to be supportive, they are asked to help with childcare, to give a donation and/or encourage all the women they know to participate.

Throughout the years, organizers in Vancouver have refused to ask for a mandatory city permit to demonstrate. In fact, we see it as a contradiction in terms. Why would we ask male authorities for a permit to demonstrate when it is their behavior we are protesting? Every TBTN is an illegal action. The marches include safety women, wearing some visible piece of clothing. Although all women are responsible for each others safety, these safety women have particular responsibility

The police have invited themselves to every TBTN march in Vancouver, and almost every year have not been useful; have been, in fact, disruptive, a bother or increased the fear level of women participating (e.g. riding their motorbikes within inches of the demonstrators, trying to isolate a few women from the crowd, making demeaning comments). The safety women have been fabulous throughout the years at protecting the crowd from traffic, hecklers and the police, and encouraging all women to take responsibility for the safety of us all.

* * * *

Vancouver’s first TBTN was organised in 1978 by an adhoc group calling themselves the “Fly-by-Night” Collective.

Women gathered in witch-like costumes and proceeded to demonstrate in the rain, through the streets of the West End.

They carrying an anti-woman effigy, which they set afire on one of the beaches along the Pacific Ocean. At one point en route, the police attempted to divide women by isolating a few with their cars. Women’s response was to call all women to the police car, surrounding it, and plaster it with stickers that demanded an end to violence against women, all the while chanting “take one, take all”. A fine example of bravery and cleverness:

I do not know why there was no TBTN in 1979. Maybe it was the lull before the storm. Between 1980-85, thousands of Vancouver women have taken part in yearly actions. These were all organized by Vancouver Rape Relief, the first rape crisis centre in Canada. In 1983 another rape crisis centre started up in the city. By then Rape Relief had bought a house and had changed our name to Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter.

In 1980, the event took place in the Grandview-Woodlands neighbourhood. “Out of the kitchens and into the streets” was the rallying cry of the organisers. The publicity was distributed in English, as well as Italian, Punjabi and Chinese in an attempt to reach women more broadly in the city’s multicultural community.

The next year, 1981, was a momentous one. Rape Relief was, and is, a member of the Canadian Association of Sexual Assault Centres (CASAC), an umbrella organisation with members across English Canada and Quebec. We asked ourselves why TBTN couldn’t be organised across the country on the same night each year, and brought such a proposal to the next CASAC Convention, in the spring of 1981. This convention unanimously agreed, and a united Canada-wide TBTN was born, to be held on the 3rd Friday of September.

In September of 1981, 6000 women took part across the country. This was also a year of fear and grief for the people of B.C. Eleven children had disappeared in the lower Mainland area and had later been found brutally, raped and murdered. We held the demonstration in the city of New Westminster, the home of several of the missing children. We wanted to show support for KIDS (Kids in Distress), a support group formed by parents in response to the disappearances. We rallied in the rain to hear a brief speech by candlelight, and walked through the dark, residential streets alongside the griev ing mothers, in protest. The infamous Clifford Olson was later charged, tried, and jailed as responsible for some of these child murders.

By 1982, pornography was becoming more visible and more widely distributed than before in Vancouver: corner stores, supermarkets and drugstores flaunted displays and Red Hot Video stores sprang up all over B.C. — the first video store to sell mostly pornography. One store opened up only 3 blocks from our shelter. TBTN in 1982 was the first of what came to be many public actions against Red Hot Video. The store in our neighbourhood was the first stop where angry marchers gathered to hear a speech about the effects of pornography on women’s lives and the daily reality of fear and violence we live with.

The protest moved on to the steps of City Hall, where we heard a speech for the first time ever from the newly-formed Alliance for the Safety of Prostitutes (ASP). This group would have increasing prominence over the next few years, as city and provincial and federal governments directed the brunt of repressive “street cleaning” measures at the women being sold on the streets of Vancouver, and across the country.

The last stop of 1982 was near the home of Ivan Henry, a rapist exposed in the local papers that year as being responsible for several attacks in his own neighbourhood. This demonstration rang through the streets of Mount Pleasant with the now-familiar chants of “Incest, rape, battered women — we have had enough” and “Women unite, take back the night” and “What do we want? Freedom! When do we want it? Now:”

* * * *

After TBTN, many women’s groups in Vancouver focussed a multitude of protests at the Red Hot Video Chain. Several of the stores were firebombed by a group calling itself the “Wimmin’s Fire Brigade” and this advanced the campaign greatly. Before long most of the country knew of Red Hot video and the mounting opposition to its existence — which intensified as a result of the bombings. Police and other authorities were alarmed, not only at the bombings, but the growing activism, and increased surveillance of any political activity was evident. Many more cops showed up at any demonstrations, and a number of activists from various groups had their homes broken into by police.

Although we wanted to continue uniting with this growing movement against Red Hot, Rape Relief was concerned that direct violence against women continue to get attention, and not just the depiction of it. We know violence against women takes place in our own homes, or the homes of the men who attack us. Throughout 1983 there were several attacks highlighted at bus stops as well. We wanted to mark some places where women had actually been attacked that year.

So, in 1983, our march again took to the streets of Mount Pleasant, and again had three stops. The first was a bus stop where we heard from a representative of India Mahilli Association how much more vulnerable to street attack we are at night. She spoke about race and poverty as factors which increase our vulnerability as well.

On a quiet, residential street a woman from Rape Relief spoke of the violence she had experienced in her own home and demanded an end to it for herself and all women. The final stop was at Red Hbt Video, the focus of a year’s worth of rage shared by the women united on this night. A spokesperson from the Northshore Women’s Centre expressed this rage on behalf of her own group, which had done a great deal of anti-porn work, and on behalf of all of us. The demonstration kept a lot of discipline that year — some who wanted to raid the place chose not to act on what we all didn’t agree to. We danced off this energy at the dance later that night.

* * * *

Early in 1984, the North Shore Women’s Centre made public their research on Jim Pattison, a local multi-millionaire and born-again Christian. This man, who bad his name in the paper every second day, was well-known for his rags-to-riches sucess in venture capitalism and for his contributions to society — or at least his church and the well-being of the Social Credit party. The North Shore Women’s Centre reported that one of his businesses, Mainland Magazine, was the major distributor of pornography in B.C. Pattison, and once again Red Hot Video, became the target of TBTN in 1984.

Along with our sisters across Canada, about 200 of us gathered, this time downtown, and marched and chanted through Vancouver. As we passed Red Hot there were no speeches, but we left our mark. At the start of the march every woman had been given a supply of bright yellow stickers which read STOP RAPE and WOMEN UNITE. Somehow, without planning, and without breaking the pace of the march, most of them ended up plastered over the windows of Red Hot Video. They seemed best put there.

Police managed to get in the way, as usual. They pretend they are protecting us and we all know they don’t do that. This time they divided a truck with P.A. equipment off from the rest of the march, as we continued to the downtown main office of Pattison’s corporate empire. There, we managed to make our speech despite their “help” — focussing on the pornography profits Pattison made. The remainder of the stickers were plastered on the polished windows of his building. We returned for tea and coffee to the basement of Christ Church Cathedral, the site earlier in the year of an occupation in protest of harassment of prostitutes.

The women’s liberation movement in Canada had been the target of severe attacks from government from 1983 to 1985. Cutbacks in funding had forced many groups to fold and weakened others. Attempts were made to discredit the statistics on violence against women that feminists had uncovered — and replace them with new theories by male criminologists and psychiatrists. Women who refused to testify against their abusers in court were imprisoned for contempt.

One of the ways Rape Relief rose in response to these attacks was to decide to make Take Back the Night a household word in 1985. We wanted many new women mobilised. We produced a film and discussion series, held once a month from May through September, where women came to view films, slides and videos and discuss the reality of violence against women. Each month more women turned up, or returned with a few of their friends, and by September we had distributed a flyer all over town advertising the film nights and the September march.

Following the initiative of a local Vancouver artist, we also conducted workshops throughout the summer to create placards, visuals and 6 – 10 ft. female figures to add to the political content and visual impact of the event. Both the film nights and the workshops were opportunities for many more women to help built the march ahead of time then had ever done so before.

And the results? Over 500 women took to the streets last September in the largest women-only demonstration that Vancouver has ever seen! With drums beating, face painters at work, placards waving, and the fabulous huge dolls looming over the crowd, it was the most spirited and lively Take Back the Night ever.

1986 — Here We Come!


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We require the police and crown councils to do their jobs. When we come to you, do not treat us like inconveniences. Treat us with respect and investigate our cases. Charge him appropriately. Do not treat our advocates and support system with suspicion. Understand that we require each other’s presence until we can be 100% sure of your good will and action on our behalf.

The women were conducting Take Back the Night, a direct action to take over city streets calling for freedom from rape, freedom from prostitution and livable welfare on demand.

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November 2004

"We wanted to take back a space off limits to women...instead of telling women they should stay away in order to be safe, we wanted women to be here and be safe.”

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