Media, morality and Vancouver's missing women
Corpus Delicti (Noun) 1. In law, the actual facts that prove a crime or offence against the law has been committed. 2. Inf. The body of a murdered person. From Lat Corpus Delicti, the body of the crime.
—Senior Gage Dictionary of Canadian English
In British Columbia, nestled between brand new housing subdivisions and a golf course, is a farm where for the last eighteen months a small army of 103 forensic anthropologists has been working with heavy equipment, including two large flatbed conveyor belts and two dump trucks. Human DNA found on the property comes from members of a list of more than sixty women who have disappeared since 1978 from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. One-third of these women were aboriginal, and most were what is called “street-involved”: sex workers addicted to heroin and/or cocaine who came to their Downtown Eastside lifestyles because they needed to support their addictions. Science is being used to trace the horrifying story backwards through fragments in the ground—and the bone bits and eyelashes of dozens of women have already been found—but these fragments only tell part (albeit the most gruesome aspect) of a larger, ongoing story involving a neighbourhood that has become a site of civic shame for an entire city and its law-enforcement and media institutions. Beyond the search for the corpus delicti—beyond headlines about the “pig farm killer,” the accused Robert Pickton, and the certainty that this is the largest serial murder investigation Canada has ever known—this search is about a crisis of meaning and reconciliation in a city where, for years, the very absence of these bodies had to be insisted on. In a sense, Vancouver is discovering its entire body politic, the unacknowledged parts of its anatomy—vulgar and dangerous—that polite discussion always avoids. Ironically, the women who disappeared are more present now than they ever were when alive.
The city of Vancouver is an affluent, modern West Coast metropolis where glittering skyscrapers reflect a seemingly endless blue expanse of water and sky. Its splendid location between the mountains of the Coastal Range and the lip of the Pacific make it an enviable destination to sell to tourists, as well as a popular site for Hollywood film crews. The city sees itself as the most potent distillation of the provincial motto found on every license plate: “Beautiful British Columbia.” Writer Douglas Coupland, one of the city’s most successful exports, calls Vancouver the “city of glass.”
In the 1980s, the city’s fame as a world-class skiing and sailing destination grew quickly, equalled only by its reputation as North America’s most thriving hard-drug port. Ironically, the moniker “Lotusland”—a 1960s stereotype of the city, and British Columbia in general—remains despite Vancouverites’ transparent desire to live hearty, healthy, clean lives. “Vancouver has consistently been rated one of the most livable cities in the world by international surveys,” states City Hall’s Web site. Climate, livability and a unique brand of friendliness are routinely cited as proof of civic superiority.
Ambitious plans are afoot to turn the city by the sea into a world-class destination, plans which moved closer to fruition upon Vancouver’s recently successful bid to host the 2010 Winter Olympics. “I think it’s just going to bring a new life to the city, and get it on the international scene,” said one elated celebrant over the whiz-bang of fireworks earlier this summer, when the decision was announced. “I think everyone knows that Vancouver’s a beautiful city, but I think it’s going to be great to show that we can actually host an event this big. People will see that we’re really . . . really, nice people!”
Being world-class, however, has a very different feel for the city’s poorer residents. Vancouver got an early taste of international celebrity as host of the 1986 World Exposition. City Councillor Jim Green, a leader of the Downtown Eastside Residents Association during the lead up to Expo, remembers 1986 very clearly. During Expo, he recalls, evictions of the poor and elderly were rampant, and unsightly human traffic—prostitutes, drug addicts, drunks—was restricted to a small area in an attempt to make more of the city’s downtown core feel safe and accessible to tourists and other visitors. “Street culture” got corralled into a specific district of the city: the Downtown Eastside (the DES). The memory of these conflicts was still fresh enough in the minds of downtown residents this past year that Councillor Green’s trusted voice was required to reassure them there would not be another housing crisis as a result of Olympics-related civic renovation.
Most Vancouverites trace their awareness of the missing women to September 2001, when The Vancouver Sun, one of the city’s two major dailies, ran a multi-part investigative series by veteran reporters Lindsay Kines and Kim Bolan. Awareness of these women’s presence in Vancouver street life had, however, been growing in the city’s cultural subconscious for years previous. In 1996, Vancouver novelist Nancy Richler published Throwaway Angels, a book that dealt, loosely, with the topic of sex workers in Vancouver meeting with foul play. As early as 1998, Kines had been writing about a loose working group formed to investigate the disappearances of DES women; in July 1999, the true-crime show America’s Most Wanted ran a segment on the missing women; and in 1998, the popular TV series Da Vinci’s Inquest began its first season.
An early example of the now prevalent forensic-investigator show, episodes of Da Vinci’s Inquest typically begin with a corpse and work backwards to unravel the mysterious death within the hour. The series also contained a long-running subplot in which prostitutes went missing from the streets of the DES. Stranger-than-fiction relationships go deeper: the character of Da Vinci, the city coroner, is widely assumed to be based on a real city coroner, Larry Campbell. Campbell consulted on the series and even wrote an episode. He then went on to run for city office, and was elected mayor of Vancouver in 2002 on a platform that included rectifying social injustices in the DES.
By this time, however, residents of the Downtown Eastside were used to being ignored. The first DES Women’s Memorial March was organized in 1991 to publicize a plague of violence against the local female population. In subsequent years, marchers demanded authorities take a closer look at the disappearance of neighbourhood women. The annual event suggests the extent to which residents’ warnings to police about the disappearances had been disregarded. Residents did not believe that the disappearances represented random vanishings of transient junkies and hookers. Women had been disappearing without trace for several years by then—and for almost as long, DES residents had been pointing authorities toward a certain property in Port Coquitlam. Even the fact that its owner, Robert Pickton, had been previously charged with attempted murder (although the charges were later stayed) didn’t seem to bear enough weight for the police until the story in the Sun broke. By the spring of 2002, however, everyone realized that the marchers had been right all along.
Maggie de Vries, an unofficial spokesperson for the families of the missing since her own sister Sarah disappeared in April 1998, explains that resistance by authorities in many instances delayed the gathering of witness accounts and other evidence that may have been crucial to the case. As late as 2000, authorities were generally still treating the claims that there was a serial killer (or killers) at work in the DES as an alarmist conspiracy theory not warranting serious attention. These women were volatile drug addicts and transient sex workers, authorities argued, and as such not the sort of people to maintain consistent contact with friends and family members. “That was very frustrating,” says de Vries, who credits the detective assigned to her sister’s missing-persons file with helping her convince police officials to take various actions. “Sarah was not transient; her life was driven by local needs for heroin, for contact with people she cared about, to get info about her kids from us. She was a fixture in [the neighbourhood], as were many of these women—some of them spoke to their families every day.”
“The RCMP working group was set in the spring of 2001, and the Vancouver Sun series came in the fall, but I think the series put a lot of pressure on the authorities, [and] had a lot to do with what happened,” says de Vries, who was interviewed for the articles. “Lindsay Kines was focused very early on the missing women, before anyone else. There was nobody telling him to go out and cover the missing women, he was just going out and doing it, and getting the paper to let him write about it. If it hadn’t been for him, it would have taken even longer to get [the investigation going], I think.”
“I don’t believe any police officer . . . in the Vancouver Police Department consciously believes that these women are worth nothing,” says de Vries. “I believe that most police officers believe that they believe that these women are worth looking for, just the same as anybody else . . . It runs deeper than that. And as soon as they had a place to look, they were looking really hard, and pouring millions and millions of dollars in.”
Ascertaining the whereabouts of persons who live outside the system is not easy, as de Vries explains. “We could talk about the fact that virtually everything Sarah had to do to get through her day was a crime. Every time she communicated for the purposes of selling sex, every time she bought heroin, did heroin, she was committing a crime over and over and over again—twenty or thirty times every day, if you combine the number of times she had to shoot up and had to sell sex. It’s the police’s job to stop crime, so it’s an adversarial relationship: there’s no trust. It’s an impossible situation; the police were supposed to protect Sarah from the violence she encountered over the course of her criminal activities? It’s just impossible.”
The RCMP and Vancouver Police Joint Task Force created a list of missing women, which now numbers sixty-three. But even that number doesn’t stay put. Some names on the list are known to be dead or murdered—and as a result, no longer missing—while others, having escaped incommunicado from “the life” to live safely elsewhere in the country, get removed. Others, it is assumed, have died of overdose or disease, or been killed—and their murderers found not to be Pickton. Of the sixty-three women now on the missing list, the fifteen Pickton is accused of murdering all disappeared between 1997 and 2001—leaving many years of disappearances unaccounted for. More names are added, and some are removed, as files are cross-referenced and indexed, and more evidence is found.
Since the turn of the last century, the Downtown Eastside has been passed over by the bright angels of the city’s construction. Vancouver began in 1867 as a settlement called Gastown (after the Fraser River captain John “Gassy Jack” Deighton): the glittering avenues of the new metropolis are built around the old brick layers of its early promise as a fishing and logging town. A statue of Gassy Jack still graces the square at the foot of Carrall Street, a nexus where—mountains and Burrard Inlet looking on—the cracked original pavement meets the refurbished cobblestones of present-day Gastown, now a haven for tourists. The real city meets the postcard one: even the streetlights are replicas of Victorian gaslights from Gassy Jack’s time.
The term “skid row” is thought to have originated in Gastown, which was the end of a log-running line. The phrase, of course, has taken on profounder connotations: lonely, single men, blowing their payday on glasses of beer, women and stronger anæsthetics. Gastown’s main thoroughfare, Water Street, once riddled with bordellos and saloons, was where the rough trade that came in on steamships and barges met up with the shrewd trade waiting on shore. Water Street today has replaced its red-light district with the quaint façades, Old Spaghetti Factory and native handicraft souvenir shops familiar from any Canadian tourist district.
The Downtown Eastside shares the Victorian architecture of Gastown, but most of its storefronts haven’t been restored. Two blocks south of Water Street runs Hastings, the main thoroughfare of the DES. In past incarnations, Hastings represented all that was fine and aspiring in the young city. The imposing Woodward’s building, Vancouver’s signature department store, was the district’s commercial anchor, while the busy No. 20 streetcar line (still running today) bustled shoppers back and forth through the neighbourhood.
There are few legitimate businesses left on these blocks today. A drive-by survey reveals pawnshops, broken-down bars, seedy hotels, a Money Mart and convenience stores with grilles on the windows. Woodward’s went out of business in 1993. Squatters protested the lack of affordable local housing by occupying Woodward’s for several months in 2002. Like a luxury steamer run aground, its many-storied, abandoned shell is wedged in the heart of the neighbourhood, taking up a whole city block.
Gastown and Chinatown (the other district bordering Hastings) buffed up in time for the World’s Fair in 1986 and now proudly service the tourist trade. Hastings Street, which runs between these two neighbourhoods, is the tattered ribbon of sanctuary for people excluded from the ordinary bustle of the socio-industrial complex. Crime, drugs, prostitution and homelessness are the daily reality here. Long a flashpoint of anxiety and discord for Vancouver’s residents, city policy has contributed to the Downtown Eastside’s present condition as “Canada’s poorest postal code.” Now described variously as a black hole, an island, a no-man’s-land or the Low Track, the area was, until recently, barely acknowledged on the surface of Vancouver’s urban geography. The DES has become “a neighbourhood that you only visit if you are looking for something in particular,” a recent Globe and Mail article stated, hinting archly at the availability of drugs and sex. People who find themselves passing through typically roll up their car windows and make sure that their doors are all locked. For most, Hastings Street is the place you end up when you have nowhere else to go.
Yet no neighbourhood at the centre of a thriving metropolis can realistically be described as cut off from its surroundings. Its very reputation as a source of cheap drugs and sex suggests that city residents are complicit in the commerce of the DES. Prostitutes working downtown corners get clients from all over town; drug users exist at all levels of society. Geographically, the DES exists in the very centre of city traffic patterns, which flow both through and around it. It is a site of avoidance: any rerouting of workday commuter patterns to avoid the DES denotes clear awareness of it. Walk out any given night, and the convertible Mustangs idling on Hastings or its many tributaries likely don’t belong to people who live in the area.
The illegal and perceived immoral nature of such commerce gives the DES its complex role in the city’s psyche by serving the city’s publicly unacceptable needs. Certain journalists, sensitive to these qualities, have sought to show the world Vancouver’s dirty laundry. A Globe and Mail journalist and photographer follow one young junkie down an alley, where she proceeds to shoot up in her neck for the camera. Another article, this time in the Calgary Herald, tells us that the Low Track is infamous for attracting the cheapest and meanest customers in the city’s sex trade. “The price of sex is geared to the cost of drugs. A heroin fix runs between $10 to $20, while a rock of crack cocaine costs about $10.” Another feature, in the Toronto-based National Post, has reporter Mark Hume travel safari-like into Vancouver’s worst back alleys: “the downtown east side is in an old part of the city that has become a catch basin for Canada’s most desperate citizens. It has the highest HIV infection rate in the Western world and is recognized, because of its crime and drug-addiction problems, as perhaps the greatest urban challenge in North America.”
Urban shock-journalism of this sort has a long history dating back to Victorian London. In what was to become his career-making work, William Stead published “Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon,” a serialized, in-the-street account of the sale of virgins in the brothels of East London. Stead’s descriptions, written in the first person, were particularly shocking because they made readers uncomfortably aware of the poverty, disease and ill intentions teeming in their streets. Later famous for his coverage of the Jack the Ripper murders in 1888, Stead’s articles were always accompanied by woodcuts of the damsels’ last moments on the auction block or, by 1888, impressionistic renderings of victims’ last moments before the Ripper got to them.
Whether crusading or sensational, however, such day-in-the-life accounts have always focused on the shocking details of street life, without widening their frame to consider the question of why things are the way they are. Then, as now, public moral panic has centred on the social incidentals of the cases rather than the conditions that make the murders possible in the first place.
Vancouverites—like most residents of any city, for that matter—rarely gaze meaningfully on the faces of the poor in their midst. Whether through the use of habitual driving routes that bypass certain portions of Hastings Street, or exhortations to children and out-of-town visitors (“don’t go there”), the same climate of fear that governed Victorian London, and now governs Americans’ imagination of inner-city life, is at work in Vancouver.
One man who refused to take the situation at face value is photographer Lincoln Clarkes. Clarkes is a long-time Downtown Eastside resident who made his name in the eighties and nineties doing high-end Paris runway photography and celebrity portraiture, as well as fine-art photography of a fairly uncontroversial and personal nature. In the autumn of 1996, though, he took an impromptu portrait of a heroin-addicted friend, Leah, shooting up in a bus shelter in the DES. Looming large behind her in the shelter was a Calvin Klein advertisement featuring Kate Moss.
Clarkes’ photograph of Leah became the first in a stunning, confrontational series of over four hundred portraits of women from the Downtown Eastside. For years, every Sunday, Clarkes wandered the streets with a female assistant, carrying bags of cigarettes, fresh fruit and (of course) money. He allowed each woman to choose the backdrop. He only asked, each time, that she maintain eye contact with his lens. “That was important to me. That stare into the camera is so that all those people who will never know them, who hit the gas and lock their doors when they drive around here, can know them.” The photographs, now numbering over four hundred, were shown publicly for the first time in 1998 at Vancouver’s avant-garde Helen Pitt Gallery. Clarkes called the series the “Heroines” project.
The “Heroines” portraits are detailed apprehensions of women in their living environments; most pictures were taken mere feet from where Clarkes encountered his subjects on his Sunday afternoon walks through the neighbourhood. Photographs are titled by place and date but no names are used; the women’s identities remain anonymous. And yet, of course, the very act of portrayal makes them specific. The women are carefully framed, in outfits and settings chosen by each in the moment. They fix their hair, apply lipstick in a broken piece of mirror, look haughty, smile, strike glamour poses—their tracked-up arms as painfully obvious as their dumpster outfits and ill-fitting pumps.
Clarkes’ “Heroines” has toured the international gallery circuit and appears often in local and international press. Among the hundreds of portraits in the collection, a couple are of women who subsequently went missing, and one—at least—is of a woman whose DNA traces have subsequently been found on the Pickton property.
Newspapers needn’t depend, like William Stead in 1840s London, on impressionistic woodcuts to illustrate tales of sad damsels on the descent. Likewise, Clarkes’ portrait of Patricia Johnson formed part of a 1999 RCMP poster of the missing women.
The “Heroines” photographs catalyzed public opinion and awareness of DES women’s lives in a way that their habitual presence on the sidewalks of Hastings Street never had. It was almost as though Clarkes’ photographs functioned as a crucible for the city’s relationship with its most endangered citizens. For many gallery-goers, the portraits were a first opportunity to look at and imaginatively engage the women of the DES without fear.
Many viewers have a difficult relationship with the portraits. One letter in the National Post bluntly stated, “Clarkes’ bemused fascination with the women of Vancouver’s downtown east side bastardizes the art he claims to create . . . The only truth in his work is self-gratification . . . I would argue Mr. Clarkes gravitates to these ‘tragic’ beauties because they confirm he is everything they are not . . . Clearly, he is drawn to a group of women he sees himself superior to.” Other commentators have been disturbed by what they interpret as Clarkes’ coercion of his subjects and bottom-basement fee to pose for him. The fact that the women agreed to be photographed and signed releases—thus, in a sense, having the same rights any model has—is seen as less important than the fact of their status as impoverished and drug-addled victims.
The strong emotions of strangers—empathy, shock, disgust, love, fear—have become a daily concern for Clarkes since he began showing the “Heroines” photographs several years ago. I met the photographer for coffee this past spring, at the Portland Hotel Café on Hastings Street. The bargain-priced café serves a great grilled cheese on squirrelly bread.
The Portland is a renovated shelter for DES residents with “substance misuse difficulties.” It had recently mounted an exhibition of Clarkes’ “Heroines,” and the choice of prints pleased him. “I wanted to pick some of the happier ones, you know? Because people are always seeing the ones that look so seedy.”
He points out a picture of woman who died of complications from needle-related diseases last year. “She looks really beautiful in this picture—so much intelligence in those eyes.”
Clarkes called his series “Heroines” because of what he saw in his subjects, many of whom, he points out, are his friends. “I see them that way because to me they are heroic, the way they struggle every day to survive in this place,” he says. “They dream of leaving—they dream of lots of things—but they always wake up in the same pain.”
When the book version of Heroines (Anvil Press, 2002) was first released, Clarkes ducked out to Ireland to avoid speaking to media. “I’m so exhausted from all the so-called controversy that I really don’t have the energy to defend myself,” said Clarkes. “But the project still just so totally excites me. The experience of doing this work was so emotionally overwhelming, to start with—but it’s good work that I’m doing, work that needs to be done. This is my neighbourhood, okay—and these women are the people I wanted to take pictures of.”
“I mean, what do people expect?” he continues, with no small measure of exasperation. “I’m a photographer. Should I just take pictures of barbecues for the Canadian Tire catalogue? Should I only take pictures of women when they look perfect, when they have lipstick on? That’s what I sometimes think people would prefer to look at.”
When he pointed his medium-format Rolleiflex at his subjects, Clarkes was not out to document the dead—an interpretation that became popular in the wake of the Robert Pickton inquiry. Rather, it is the media blitz and social fallout from the Pickton inquiry that have made Clarkes’ images so recognizable. He tells me of leading a woman reporter from Reuters on an all-day, guided tour through his neighbourhood, which ended in the rented room of one of his heroines. “She couldn’t believe what she was seeing. She ended up writing this big piece that was distributed all over the wires, in all sorts of international papers—people had never seen this side of Vancouver before, and I showed it to her.”
A photograph may be just another way of speaking for the subject—early photographs of Native Americans come to mind—yet in the case of “Heroines,” the women represented most often had no other voice. A federal government policy meeting in Ottawa involving the problems of the DES women included Clarkes’ portraits (brought as evidence by community advocates) because they spoke so eloquently of the situation on Vancouver’s streets. In the cases of certain women, these are the last or only known photographs that exist.
When I ask Clarkes what he thinks motivated his subjects to agree to be photographed, besides their famously small modelling fee, he responds with a shrug. “What makes any woman, any person, want to be photographed?” he asked. “Some of them think they’re beautiful, and they are—look at them, some of them could have been models. Some of them were high—they were mostly high—but it wasn’t as though I coerced them. I would never do that. In many cases, they came to me and asked to be in the series.”
“If anything, it’s that they want to be recorded for the record. Because they know they might not be here tomorrow.”
On February 7, 2002, authorities raided a 4.5-hectare plot of land in the suburban township of Port Coquitlam, about thirty kilometres east from Vancouver’s downtown core along the Fraser River. The plot in question—owned by three wealthy siblings, David “Piggy” Pickton, Robert “Willy” Pickton and sister Linda—is the only “rural” property left in the area. The farm is surrounded by housing subdivisions and a golf course, all new developments built on land formerly owned by the brothers.
To date, forensic analysis of cigarette butts, clothes, teeth, eyelashes, fingernails, shards of bone and biological waste found in the soil of the Pickton land, as well as forensic testing on materials found in a trailer used by Mr. Pickton on the property, have turned up DNA materials from fifteen of the “missing” women. The remains of dozens of other women from the missing list have also been found at the site—but a court order forbids discussion of many specific details of the case. Authorities are still deciding whether to lay more charges. Preliminary proceedings against Robert Pickton ended in British Columbia provincial court on July 23, 2003. Pickton is accused of fifteen first-degree murders, of the women whose DNA traces have been unearthed0on his property. Pickton will reappear in court on December 15, 2003, when a trial date will be set. As of print time, though, his trial has been postponed at his counsel’s request.
In the media furor following the initial police raid, a gruesome folktale was created and stuck: “Investigators are looking for bodies and tiny body fragments,” reported The Vancouver Sun in the very first article about the case, “with forensic specialists behind the scenes saying the bodies [of missing women] may have been put through a wood chipper and fed to the pigs.” The report added that Pickton, fifty-three, and his brother David “had 30 sheep, 12 pigs, 12 goats, a couple of llamas, and cows.”
Within a few days, “pigs” and “pork” became incontrovertibly linked to the case and to Pickton. A spokeswoman for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, attempting to reassure investigators that “pig materials only have been delivered as animal products to the rendering plant,” added, under scrutiny, “I can’t imagine any testing that would distinguish, um, you know—animal matter one from another.”
Consumer panic quickly found ordinary bacon and sausage guilty by association. Local pork producers pleaded for media to refer to the farm as an “investment property” or “the Pickton Farm”—or the numerically more accurate sheep farm. But this was not meat-packing country, it was health-obsessed Vancouver, where sushi and gluten-based imitation meat dominate epicurean culture. For outraged citizens, not eating pork became a form of solidarity with the victims. The animal-rights organization PETA even created a full-page advertisement for local newspapers likening slaughterhouse techniques to the missing women’s last moments. Though refused by the papers, PETA’s attempts to run it were widely reported, and so the damage to the pork industry was done.
Pickton never raised pork for commercial sale, though he did butcher pigs in a private slaughterhouse on the property for personal use and for distribution to neighbours and friends. A dancehall called Piggy’s Palace, owned and operated by David Pickton, had existed on the property in the 1980s and 1990s, but for the most part, the land in question was a storage yard for decrepit farm buildings, live-in trailers and junked cars—the detritus of past functionality—amongst which the assorted livestock wandered. This, too, is misleading, since the animal husbandry was a half-hearted, barely functional business.
Hyperbolic talk about livestock, of course, had nothing to do with the case; it merely served to create a mini-crisis for British Columbia’s livestock industry, and added to the indignities suffered by missing women and their loved ones. The media’s pig fixation was, at base, a sensationalistic hook on the public imagination and a convenient metaphor for the horrific details of the case. In the process, however, it demeaned the women’s personhood and obscured the larger social issues that contributed to their very disappearance.
Maggie de Vries, whose sister Sarah’s DNA was found at the Pickton property, is the author of Missing Sarah: A Vancouver Woman Remembers Her Vanished Sister (Penguin Canada, 2003). She has been a leader among the families of the missing since her sister disappeared from a street corner in the Downtown Eastside. “Somehow the search [on the Pickton property] meant that there was far bigger media interest than ever before, because . . . all of a sudden when it’s about a murderer instead of just missing women, everyone’s really interested in it,” she says.
“That comes up over and over again, people want to talk about evil . . . there was this enormous interest in this one man, this pig farmer,” she says. The story of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside was easier to tell as a serial killer story—Innocence stalked by Unspeakable Evil, headline friendly—than the bigger, far more complicated tale of an entire social echelon slipping into invisibility.
In order to achieve a full account of her sister’s life, de Vries went down into the DES neighbourhood where Sarah lived for fourteen years after running away from home as a teenager. The book draws heavily on Sarah’s own diaries to flesh out her sister’s life as a drug-addicted sex worker living in the Downtown Eastside. The book also provides an account of Sarah’s disappearance one April night in 1998 and the subsequent investigation that led to the forensic search on the Pickton property.
Missing Sarah is a compelling read, the most detailed and painstaking account of the life of one Downtown Eastside woman ever written for the public. Sarah, alive, was much more than a walking name-on-a-list. For de Vries, a children’s author who also lives in Vancouver, writing a book about her sister was a way of “making Sarah real for me, and real for people, so that next time they see a woman on the corner [in the DES], maybe they’ll think, oh, that’s an actual person.”
She continues, “It was very difficult to write about Sarah’s world and her experience in a way that achieved the right balance,” she says. “I already knew her life in many ways was horrific; every week she experienced violence, drug addiction, desperation, health problems [Sarah was HIV positive], missing her children, guilt that she wasn’t raising her children, degrading experiences with selling sex. She was forced up there on the sidewalk over and over because if she doesn’t, she’s going to get sick [from drug withdrawal].
“But the other things, I think, might surprise most people: there was lots of laughter in Sarah’s life, there was camaraderie, people with whom she had lasting friendships, who would almost die for each other; a sense of support in many ways more than a lot of people in mainstream society experience in their lives. I wanted to portray that, but I wanted to portray it in such a way that wasn’t20going to make people think [the DES] was a nice place, because it’s not.”
The last chapter of Missing Sarah elaborates on how Sarah’s sister’s life could have been made more livable. “In our society, we think we need to save women from themselves,” de Vries told me. “I struggled so hard because Sarah hated doing it, selling sex. But my underlying message was that it should be legal, or at least not illegal.
“There’s a huge variety of sex work in Van, and most of it happens indoors. About 80 percent of sex workers are indoors and safe and never ever on the street. Only this small portion of women are, and that’s what my sister was involved in. I feel it should have been possible for her to work inside, where she could have been safe and control her environment; and I think it should have been possible for her to choose not to do it if that’s what she wanted. I’m not prepared to say sex work is bad . . . I mean . . . women have a resource that men want to buy, why shouldn’t they be allowed to sell it?
“People want to say that all prostitution is sexual slavery, and what Sarah was doing was slavery, but it wasn’t. She had a choice; Sarah had lots of choices . . . Sarah had a right to sell sex whether she loved it or hated it, just as you and I have a right to do things that hurt us—it’s not up to you to come by and stop me from hurting myself. I know Sarah, she was a tough woman, she wanted out and struggled. But nobody could come along and pick her up and shove her into detox.”
There is an old television report of Sarah shooting up for the benefit of the reporter. “I really like the footage. It’s probably intrusive and all those bad things, but it’s also my sister living and talking and so I’m glad to have it . . . [people] have a visceral reaction to seeing her shoot up, they react to the way she looks, too, but to me that’s just Sarah.”
De Vries says, “I don’t think people see the big picture of why these things are happening to prostitutes and drug addicts. They’re really afraid of the safe injection site [for example]. I’ve heard people say they had a lot of trouble with the idea because they thought it was just encouraging people to party it up—but as I’ve learned from [Sarah], it’s not about getting high, it’s about getting normal.”
De Vries is keenly aware of the effects an expanded knowledge of the circumstances of her sister’s life as drug user and prostitute have had on her own relationship with the Downtown Eastside. “It does have a normalizing effect, you know. Now I can walk around in the DES and feel fairly comfortable. I feel safer there than I used to, I know I’m not in danger, which is ironic. Since my sister was taken away from the DES and murdered, I now feel safe there. That’s a brutal thing but it’s true, because the people0on the DES don’t want to hurt anybody; if anything, they are protective of me.”
“I see a lot of pain there, but now at least I can open my eyes and look around.”
When the investigation of the Pickton property began, so did the press conferences—and apologies to family members like Maggie de Vries that the story had not been broken earlier. “We had media people [from across the country] crowded around . . . saying, We didn’t know. We asked the Vancouver Police if there was a story here, was there something we should be covering? And the Vancouver Police said no, so we didn’t cover it.”
“I found it very interesting that people actually work that way,” she continues, chuckling.
“That’s how the lack of investigation feeds itself.”
For the local residents of Port Coquitlam, too, there was an enormous sense of guilt. “When we had a tent put up there, opposite the entrance to the Pickton property [for people to pay their respects], people would just come, and you could feel their pain,” says de Vries.
“They want to fall on their knees and say, I’m so sorry, so sorry, I didn’t know I didn’t know I didn’t know. Because, you know, it was just over their back fence that this was going on. I was really touched by that, and by people coming by and bringing coffee and donuts. I mean, their houses are built on property the Picktons have sold off.”
“People feel a sort of helpless guilt, and I feel it too, because what can we do?” De Vries feels that a lot of the public’s indifference and ignorance relates to the fact that most of the missing women were involved in sex work on the streets of the Downtown Eastside. “Anything to do with sex is so difficult for people. Because people are so prudish, it’s very difficult to relax, and not get all tied up with one’s prudishness about how women shouldn’t be having to sell sex. People’s responses to sex work are so complicated.”
Residents’ concerns about living conditions in the DES were given a legitimacy of sorts by the RCMP investigation. There is growing bitterness, though, over the present allocation of funds to the murder investigation. Speaking into a megaphone at this year’s Women’s Memorial March, local activist and University of British Columbia instructor Fay Blaney said, “I do not support the allocation of more funds to the Pickton investigation. We stand together to honour [the victims’] hopes and their dreams, we stand together to honour the lives they have left behind . . . But we should also memorialize our sisters who are the walking wounded in these streets.”
Down at the Carnegie Community Centre, in the heart of the Downtown Eastside, community worker Marlene Trick wonders why the money wasn’t found sooner. “That’s where I think it’s really important to [exert pressure] to have the inquiry into why [this] wasn’t investigated years back,” she says. “The police departments weren’t working in unison, files were just set aside and no follow-up was done on tips.” According to Trick, if a civil suit is launched, questions of police incompetence and authorities’ mishandling of the investigation will become clear. “It could have saved many women’s lives, and it’s important for this to never happen again.”
De Vries, though she has reservations, believes that funds are being well spent. “I think it’s terrible that all that money is suddenly available, once it becomes a murder investigation, that is not there to support living women,” she says. “But I’ve heard people say, ‘Oh, they’ve already found [enough remains for fifteen murder charges], they don’t need to investigate any further.’ But that’s from people who are seeing the women as one mass, rather than individuals. Can you imagine if at Ground Zero in New York City they were saying, ‘Oh, they’ve found a hundred bodies, it’s enough’? . . . Each family needs to know about their missing loved one, it doesn’t help them to know about other women being found.”
On Valentine’s Day of this year, hundreds of Vancouverites, beating drums and singing traditional Coast Salish chants, interrupted the flow of traffic through the Downtown Eastside. The annual Women’s Memorial March, in its twelfth year, had a particular edge not felt in years past. The crowd stopped at a dozen locations where many of the missing women were last seen alive: the doorway of the Funky Winker Beans Pub; a piss-stained back alley off Hastings; the steps outside the women’s shelter. Into the restless hush of the assembled hundreds, names were called out and roses laid on the ground by families and friends. The march ended, like every year, in front of the police station at Main and Hastings, in the heart of the DES. A full police escort and representatives of all the major media outlets looked on.