Megaphone News: In honour of #VendorWeek this month, Megaphone vendor James Witwicki had a ‘face-to-face’ interview with Montreal paper vendor, Yvon Massicotte from L’Itineraire
Vancouver to Montreal: vendors share their experiences selling on the streets
Two longtime Canadian vendors working on opposite coasts connected over an online, face-to-face interview to celebrate #VendorWeek and swap experiences of how the both wound up selling street papers.
#VendorWeek is an annual celebration of street vendors around the world. It’s put on by INSP (International Network of Street Papers), which Megaphone is a member of, along with more than 100 street papers across 34 countries with more than 9,000 vendors selling papers. L’Itineraire is a sister street paper in Montreal, and longtime vendor Yvon Massicotte and Megaphone’s James Witwicki wanted to get to know each other better and how selling on street differs from city to city.
This year’s #VendorWeek is from Feb. 5 to 11. Megaphone is putting on two Big Sell events again this year, Feb. 6 in Downtown Vancouver and Feb. 8 in Victoria. The Big Sell sees celebrity guest vendors selling alongside Megaphone's vendors for one hour, to show their support and raise the profile of poverty and homelessness in our communities.
Yvon Massicotte: I got into an accident 11 years ago. I was 54 years old and I was working for myself for 30 years. It’s hard to go back to normal work at a company. I was discouraged. I came to depression, I cannot work, so I went to L’Itineraire and start to sell the magazine before I need some money. You know with welfare, you don’t have enough to have quality of life. So I try to sell the magazine and then after a couple months I become a good vendor and I do that for 11 years now. Now I’m on (L’Itineraire’s) board of directors. Today I’m 65 years old. I like what I’m doing, but it’s harder. Next year I’m going to slow down too. I write in the magazine. Do you write in the magazine too?
James Witwicki: Yes, I’ve been writing in the magazine since 2010. That was the first time I published poetry in the magazine and I’ve published about 20 poems over the years and a number of articles. I’m regularly published in the magazine. It’s one of the main things I do with Megaphone.
YM: Why did you become a vendor?
JW: It was a whole life change. I was 48 years old when I lost my wife and at that time I decided I didn’t want to work in construction anymore, which I had done for 15 years, mostly as a first aid attendant. So I stopped working and eventually I ended up in the Downtown Eastside. Then I built things up from there. I wasn’t going to do physical labour anymore, I was going to use my degree and pursue writing, which is easier for me to do as I get older.
YM: What is the Downtown Eastside like? (L’Itineraire’s editor Josee Panet-Raymond says she visited the neighbourhood and remembers it being very run down and grungy).
JW: It’s changed in different ways both for the good and the bad. This community certainly is what we would call a gritty community but for me this is my home. This is where I intend to stay. I have no intention of moving to a nicer neighbourhood. And it’s not about, for me, it’s not about how much rent is but this is my community now. This is where I’m going to spend as much time as they let me. There is a great deal of need. There is a great deal of mental illness. I myself was homeless when I came here and homelessness is a symptom of mental illness, which I have. I have been treated for the mental illness, but I’m not going to get treated and go somewhere else. I’m going to work out of this community. So it is gritty. There is a lot of drug activity. A lot of overdose deaths—and probably what the community is best known for—but we always try to promote the other side of that like people who have a different background that suddenly find skills and abilities … they can apply to continue to share and grow in the community.
YM: I was four years living in the street. You were homeless too?
JW: Yeah, I was homeless for seven months in 2010. Although I was at a pretty good no-eviction shelter.
YM: I was four years in the street. I was walking with a cane, but doctors wouldn’t want to give me an operation because it was too expensive. I would go maybe seven, eight, nine times to the hospital to get an operation and they would say, “I can’t do anything for you.” One day I find a doctor and he said, “I will find somebody to give you an operation.” He did and I became more straight and after a year I started at L’Itineraire to sell the magazine because I cannot go back to normal work. You said you write in the magazine, I write too. Before, since 11 years, I only write little words. Little things. But this year they push me to write something bigger, big articles. It’s hard to do that, but I start and it’s an experience I like to do. I am doing conferences in universities, too, schools. I do a lot of conferences, maybe 20 to 30 times in 11 years. I do four to six conferences a year. How did Megaphone change your life?
JW: I started working with Hope in Shadows taking pictures for the calendar project and that particular experience changed my life in the sense that being on what we call the hard streets, and the mess, and people dying, working with Hope in Shadows and then Megaphone has taken me out of that environment into a completely different environment where I could focus on something beautiful, I could focus on something interesting. I can deal with people like Stefania (Seccia, Megaphone managing editor), who come into the community to help us find a voice, and help us express our creativity. It’s like a sanctuary in some ways. This is a sanctuary where we feel safe and supported. You need a different point of view when people are dropping dead right beside you. You need to be able to cope with that. My parents did when they lived through the depression. How do people respond to the issues you bring up in the magazine?
YM: People like to read what we’re feeling that’s for sure. They like to know who we are. When you write about why you’re there, what brought you there. Customers like to know what brings you there.
The Big Sell in Vancouver starts at 10:30 a.m. outside the Vancouver Art Gallery on Feb. 6. In Victoria, catch vendors selling with their notable guest vendor too on Feb. 8, starting at 10:30 a.m., at Douglas and Yates.
This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.
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