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A sister's journey: from darkness to light

Maggie de Vries's sister went missing on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside five years ago. Writing a book about the loss has been painful, but cathartic

By ROBERT WIERSEMA
Special to The Globe and Mail

Thursday, Aug. 21, 2003

VICTORIA -- Maggie de Vries has the sort of personality you might expect from a writer of children's books: dynamic and ebullient, with an easy, open laugh and a twinkle in her eye. With her blond hair, the overall impression is one of sunniness.

When she talks about Sarah, her younger sister, de Vries's demeanour changes. She becomes quieter, more guarded. She smiles less, talks less freely and seems smaller somehow. Darker. It's as if a light within her has been extinguished. That light went out on April 14, 1998, when Sarah disappeared from her usual corner at Princess and Hastings in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. Her DNA was found last August on the Pickton farm in Port Coquitlam. (Robert Pickton is awaiting trial on 15 counts of first-degree murder in connection with the disappearance of 61 women from Vancouver's Eastside.)

I meet Maggie de Vries in early August at a coffee shop in Victoria. For the past three years, de Vries has been splitting her time between Vancouver, where she lives, teaches courses in childrens' literature and writes; and Victoria, where she edits children's books for Orca Book Publishers. She's particularly excited about one of her fall titles, I Gave My Mom a Castle by Ontario writer and Canadian children's lit icon, Jean Little, who co-authored de Vries's best-selling children's title Once Upon a Golden Apple.

Little is also de Vries's aunt, and along with de Vries's mother, has taken on the responsibility of raising Sarah's two children, Jeanie, 12, and Ben, 7.

"It's a strange mixture of poems," she says of Little's book. "Some of them are quite mature. There's a teen runaway who doesn't come home at the end of the poem. . . . "It's her life now," de Vries says of her aunt. "She used to lead a very conservative life, and now she's raising my sister's children . . . they keep her very current."

Maggie laughs. "She might not agree, but I think it's the best thing that could have happened to her. Her writing is still so alive, and she's 71 years old. . . ."

Little's book is dedicated to Jeanie.

Sarah was adopted into the de Vries family in 1970 when she was 11 months old. The youngest of four children (Mark, the third child, was also adopted as an infant), she was of mixed race -- black, aboriginal, Mexican Indian and white -- and stood out physically from the other children.

Her difference was noted in the community, and haunted Sarah once she started elementary school, where she faced racist taunting and violence from her classmates, a fact that was chillingly recounted in her later journals.

She also took very personally the dissolution of their parents' marriage in 1978, which created a series of shifting living arrangements. Initially, the two youngest children, Sarah and Mark, lived with their mother in Guelph, Ont., while Maggie and Peter remained in Vancouver with their father.

Maggie de Vries has spent the past year working on Missing Sarah, a memoir of her sister and an investigation into her life that draws on interviews with her companions from the Downtown East Side and from Sarah's own journals and poetry.

"Sarah's journals sat there, in my apartment," de Vries explains. "I thought that it might be a good process for me personally to read the journals properly and really be engaged by them. . . . The Pickton thing was so nasty and everything became dominated by the most gruesome side of. . . ." She stops for a moment, thinking. "It seemed like there was more of a need for something that would share one woman's story."

After selling Missing Sarah to Penguin Canada on the basis of a brief outline and sample, de Vries wrote the book in seven months.

Now that Missing Sarah has been published, though, she has mixed feelings. "The whole thing is a mixture. It's very exciting to have a book published, a book that's so important to me . . . so much more important than anything else I've written, just because it's so personal. It's wonderful to see the attention that it's getting and so far the attention has been good. But of course it's mixed because it's painful personally. Part of the reason it's getting the attention is that the media is hungry and they can't write anything on this story, and here's something they can write about."

She sighs, and seems to steel herself for difficulty ahead. "I want to talk about it, because I've learned so much, and I feel as if there's something here for people to think about."

". . . parents prefer to believe that their child is a prostitute because she's hooked on drugs rather than looking to what is troubling the girl at home. 'It's easier to believe drugs did it,' she said. 'Drugs and an evil person got them . . .' " -- Missing Sarah

Sarah began running away from home before she turned 14, while Maggie was studying at McGill in Montreal. She began spending time in downtown Vancouver, experimenting with drugs, returning home days later. Later, she began stealing from the family, and breaking into the homes of friends. She moved into a series of group homes and was picked up repeatedly by the police. Although she had experimented with heroin, she was not addicted. She began selling sex to make enough money to support her life on the street. During her early years living downtown, she had a simple rule: "Never go to Hastings. Never, never go to Hastings."

Hastings Street runs through Vancouver like a scar, an infamous urban wasteland of drug abuse, prostitution, violence and despair. It is often called Canada's poorest postal code, a neighbourhood that you only visit if you are looking for something in particular. People who find themselves passing through usually roll up their car windows and make sure that their doors are all locked. For most, to be on Hastings Street is to have fallen as far as there is to fall.

A stone's throw from Hastings Street, in the heart of the Downtown Eastside, Sarah rented a small grey house with a bare patch of yard that she worked to turn into a garden. She lived there for the last four years of her life with Charlie, a drug dealer and fellow addict. She made friends, had lovers, hosted her family for visits, looked out for the neighbourhood. She found, in the hardest concrete of the urban jungle, a community.

The Downtown Eastside is the central paradox of Sarah's life, and a force that Maggie, a foreigner there, has had to come to terms with in coming to know her sister.

"It's so complicated," says Maggie. "The side of it that shows the community, the commitment among people, the loyalty, the love, the humanity, is extremely important, because if we see it simply as an urban wasteland then it's easier to see the people within it as simply part of that wasteland. Too far gone to matter any more, without hope."

She pauses. "Sarah was utterly miserable there too. And trapped there. And I'm going to some lengths to say that she had choice and that she had the right to do what she was doing, while at the same time I recognize that she was trapped and that she wasn't finding it within herself to make different choices and that a lot of forces were aligned against her." She shakes her head, trying to reconcile her thoughts.

De Vries became something of a spokesperson for the families of the missing women after Sarah's disappearance. "It just sort of happened," she explains with a shrug. "I felt this terrible inertia, like my legs were encased in cement and I didn't want to do anything. Nothing. And then as I gradually went out there and started to talk to people on the Downtown Eastside, this whole world started to open up, and it was a world that I had been visiting regularly for five years. From 1992 to 1998, I visited Sarah regularly on the Downtown Eastside but I never looked around. . . ." She shakes her head at the missed opportunity.

Maggie began spending time in her sister's old neighbourhood, talking to people who had known her, beginning to know the sister that she had lost.

She spearheaded a campaign to hold a memorial to the missing women at First United Church in the Downtown Eastside, and acted as an informal liaison between the police and the families.

The role took its toll. "By the time the memorial was over, the reward was in place and the posters were made, I was completely exhausted, and I wasn't feeling very hopeful. As far as I knew, they had discovered nothing, so for myself I knew that I needed to accept the possibility, even the likelihood, that our family was never going to find out what happened to Sarah. I needed to grieve in a normal way in the midst of all this serial predator stuff -- just grieve Sarah's death, putting aside how she died, putting aside these connections to all these other families, just to live my life again."

The name Robert Pickton is mentioned only a handful of times in Missing Sarah, and only when it couldn't be avoided. De Vries refers regularly to the "Port Coquitlam property" or the "Dominion Road property" through the book; Pickton's name is conspicuous in its absence.

"This is a book about Sarah," she explains. "It's not a book about Robert Pickton. Stevie Cameron's going to write that book."

Nor does the phrase 'pig farm' appear anywhere in Missing Sarah. "What people are focused on is a grisly murderer and how bodies are being disposed of. They're not thinking about people."

It's the thought of people, of human possibility, that keeps de Vries going.

When asked about faith and what she believes in, she thinks for a moment. "Something, I guess -- in human beings."

"I went to see Cirque du Soleil 10 days ago." Her eyes light up with the memory. "I cried and I cried and it was so wonderful, and the whole audience is together in this experience and it's uplifting everyone and these people are incredible in what they can do and you just think, 'Human beings are amazing. . . .' "We might be horrible, horrible, but we're wonderful too. Otherwise, why go on?"

In mid-July, Maggie read from Missing Sarah for the first time, to a breakfast audience of booksellers in Vancouver. During the reading, her voice was strong and confident, breaking only, and just slightly, when she read from one of Sarah's untitled poems which opens with the lines "Woman's body found beaten beyond recognition You sip your coffee Taking a drag off your smoke . . ."

It's a powerful reading, and when she is finished, there is complete silence in the room. The emcee breaks down in tears.

Back at her seat, Maggie seems to collapse in on herself, as if it had taken all of her strength to merely make it through the reading. It was easy to see the toll that the past several years have taken on her.

Despite the toll, she has managed, in a small way, to put Sarah to rest.

"This whole process has helped. At the same time, there's a way in which she's now more alive for me than ever. When I'm reading her words, it's her -- I'm just being her voice."

Researching and writing Missing Sarah has also helped put some of her own personal demons to rest. "This whole process has been helpful in alleviating a lot of the guilt that I was feeling. Now I feel more regret, I would say." She thinks for a moment. "I regret that I couldn't learn what I've learned since she disappeared when she was still alive. It would have, I think, improved our relationship a great deal. It might not have changed her life, but I think it would have changed how I related to her. . . ." Within days of the July reading, the RCMP announced that they were searching a second property, a marsh in Mission, B.C., in connection with the Vancouver missing women. Sarah de Vries may be at rest, but the story continues.

Courtesy of
Globe and Mail

THE PIG FARM a work in progress for Knopf Canada

 

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Updated: August 21, 2016