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The lives behind the faces

As Robert Pickton's trial begins, we must remember the humanity of the missing women

Times Colonist (Victoria)
Tuesday, January 31, 2006

The photographs of those 27 faces, row upon row, tell us nothing. Some of them express a happiness long gone. But many of the faces bear the patina of pain -- there is no soul behind the vacant stares.

One is not a face at all, but a shape to account for a lost identity known only as Jane Doe.

The 27 women in the photos are the alleged victims of Robert (Willy) Pickton, who pleaded not guilty in a New Westminster courtroom Monday to first-degree murder in their deaths. They are among 68 sex-trade workers, most of them from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, who disappeared between 1978 and 2001.

Forensic experts have found evidence that the 27 were at Pickton's farm. There is DNA evidence that other missing women were on the property as well. We don't yet know why they were there or, despite the lurid speculation, what happened to them.

But as the trial proceeds at its inevitably sluggish pace we will learn some of those details. Let us hope we will also learn to attach living beings to those photographs, and to understand why their increasingly sordid lives were ended.

They have all be termed prostitutes or sex-trade workers. But each one was someone's daughter, granddaughter, niece or sister. Some were mothers, even grandmothers. All were different -- some growing up in poverty, some from better-off families.

The families of the disappeared, who have begun now to address their tragedy openly, have indicated some turned to prostitution voluntarily, some were lured into it or driven to sell their bodies to escape abuse at home.

Occasionally, one struggled to "straighten out her life," but failed. That failure, so often, is due to an acquired drug habit -- which might make us wonder how many of these women, if any, could have been saved by access to a supervised-injection clinic.

Saddest of all are the children. It's estimated the 68 women left 75 of them when they disappeared.

Some barely remember their mother not coming home one night, or when the telephone calls stopped. Others, who may have been teenagers or young adults back then, walked the streets for months in a futile search.

Yet for many of those whose lives were spiralling out of control, the children were hope itself. Some women fought to find a safe place for a young one they were bound to lose. Some vowed to turn things around in order to get their kids back. None did, but most were loving mothers to the end.

Now, for these families the anguish of waiting for news of a disappearance has been replaced by the dread of what might be revealed in court, the newspaper headlines, the images on TV. The littlest ones who might not have been told must be prepared, for none will be spared.

There is time to prepare -- perhaps too much time. The voir dire, to determine what evidence can be heard by a jury if one is selected, is expected to take six months, during which time a publication ban will shield the families from an almost daily reminder of everything they have gone through.

But eventually, three years after Pickton was arrested, the trial itself will come -- for the accused and the families of the disappeared -- and it will not be mercifully short.

It will focus, of course, on the clinical, forensic details that have a certain public fascination. We can't forget, though, the lives behind the photographs and what they meant to those who shared them, or we will have gained nothing.

 Times Colonist (Victoria) 2006

 

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Updated: August 21, 2016