R.I.P. Sheila Baxter (1933 – 2022)
February 16th, 2023
Sheila Baxter, the first writer to receive the VanCity Book Prize for best book pertaining to women’s issues by a British Columbian, died on December 19, 2022 surrounded by her close family in Vancouver.
Baxter wrote her award-winning title, Under the Viaduct (New Star, 1991) to recognize the plight of the homeless in BC and that publicized the lives of her neighbours who were living in Skid Row hotels, under bridges and on the streets.
Born on September 22, 1933 in London England, Sheila immigrated to Quebec, Canada in the fifties. A self-described “literacy guerilla” who was involved in poverty issues since 1970, Sheila Baxter co-founded Chez Doris, a drop-in centre for street women, and later, having raised five children, she volunteered as a counsellor and welfare advocate at the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre in Vancouver. A single working mother for many years, she had been on a handicapped pension due to a back injury since 1983.
As an anti-poverty activist, Sheila Baxter interviewed poor women in 1986 and published No Way to Live: Poor Women Speak Out (New Star, 1988). Her third book, A Child Is Not A Toy: Voices of Children in Poverty (New Star, 1993) was followed by another rallying cry, Still Raising Hell: Poverty, Activism and Other True Stories (Press Gang, 1997). It highlighted community initiatives in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver for improvements in health, education and housing, and other interviews with her activist colleagues. Baxter also tutored at the Carnegie Community Centre and contributed to the Carnegie newsletter.
Sheila Baxter’s play Death in a Dumpster (Lazara, 2006) was developed in St. John’s Church / Friends for Life Mask Workshop and first performed by the West End Public Theatre on May 6, 2005 at St. John’s United Church in Vancouver. Produced and directed by Ian Wallace, and featuring Baxter as a member of the cast, the fictionalized drama recalled the death of a homeless man who was crushed to death in a garbage dumpster. The main character, Danny, a young fisherman from Nova Scotia, discovers he is HIV positive and hitchhikes to Vancouver to find his mother, who abandoned him as a child.
The play caught the attention of Libby Davies, former MP for Vancouver East, who reflected on Baxter’s story: “When a dumpster becomes a refuge, what is the meaning of life in the city? Death in a Dumpster will tell you. Poverty is only a word but it is very loaded with life, death, grief, family and denial. This play is about that word.”
Rolf Maurer, who published three of Baxter’s books, said it was “a gift to have had a chance to work with Sheila,” adding that she was a force and inspiration to many. “It’s easy, reading her books, to see why. The scenes that are described, the stories that are told in those books are never just hers, they are the voices of the people she lived with and among, reflecting their experiences, and that she thought needed to be heard.
“Her strength was not just her own, but the strength of all those people in her books and plays, the community that she was such a big part of. She leaves a hole, but the place is better for her having been through it.”
A celebration of Sheila Baxter’s life and achievements will be held on April 1, 2023 at St Andrew’s Wesley United Church at 11 am and all who would like to pay their respects are welcome.