these women victims of public indifference, too?
Sarah de Vries
(Feb 10, 2007)
Since the trial of accused serial killer
Robert Pickton began last month in British
Columbia, a troubling question has been raised
by some trial watchers.
Has the public shown a lack of regard for his
alleged victims because most of them were
prostitutes and drug addicts? It is a disturbing
question that is worth exploring.
The heinous nature of the murders Pickton is
accused of committing makes his trial difficult
to follow. The goriest true crime books, serial
killer movies and reality documentaries can't
possibly match the gruesome details coming out
of the New Westminster, B.C. courthouse. Even
Canadians with strong stomachs are sickened by
"For the most part, the circus surrounding
the first week of the trial is gone," observed
Matt Kieltyka, who's covering the trial for 24
Hours Vancouver. A University of British
Columbia journalism professor cautioned that
media coverage of the trial, which was more
extensive when the trial opened, may lead to
"Pickton trial fatigue."
Understandably, most Canadians have a
difficult time absorbing the details of
Pickton's alleged depravity. A series of polls
taken last month by Decima and the University of
British Columbia found that the majority of
Canadians want the media to tone down the gory
details of the case.
A retired Victoria resident echoed the views
of countless Canadians when he said that it's
been abundantly clear for years that there had
been bodies cut up on this farm, but that he
didn't need to keep hearing about it.
There are, however, observers of the trial
who worry about public apathy when it comes to
the victims. They fear that because most of the
victims were prostitutes or drug users from
Vancouver's poor, downtown east side, there is
little sense of urgency surrounding the trial.
The relatively weak presence of public observers
in the courtroom has reinforced these fears.
The women whose body parts were found at
Pickton's pig farm lived on the margins of
society. When they began disappearing, the
police response was inadequate, insisted the
Toronto Star's Rosie DiManno, leaving Pickton to
prey on more women.
The victims' "lack of value," DiManno writes,
"was pivotal to the laggard police investigation
that permitted the killings to continue apace
over a period of many years, even as family and
friends and activists pleaded for attention from
Other observers have reached equally
troubling conclusions. Alan Young, a law
professor at Osgoode Law School in Toronto, has
contrasted the Pickton trial with the heavily
publicized trial of serial sex killer Paul
Public interest in the Bernardo trial was
stronger, Young argues, because Bernardo and his
accomplice wife Karla Homolka "were young,
attractive, upwardly mobile and . . . their
victims were also young and attractive."
Based on his observations of media coverage
and the small public audience at the Pickton
trial, Young has concluded that "the majority of
Canadians feel . . . that the victims in this
case are less worthy than other victims and that
is why it's not as interesting."
The verdicts of DiManno and Young -- and
others who've expressed similar opinions about
the Pickton trial -- suggest most Canadians
don't especially care about the victims in this
That's a harsh generalization, to be sure,
and not necessarily always accurate. Some people
care a great deal about the victims. For others,
the occasional doses of media sensationalism and
grisly nature of the crimes have proven too much
Overall, though, public sympathy for the
victims has never seemed particularly strong,
and there have been few efforts to humanize them
or understand their plight. These women stare at
us from aging police mugshots and faded family
photographs like ghosts, but their stories are
seldom told and the details of their lives are
buried in obscurity. The murdered women, in this
case, are in danger of being forgotten by the
It would be a mistake to suggest that
Canadians are unique in this regard. When a
serial killer went around murdering dozens of
African American children and adolescents in
Atlanta between 1979 and 1981, few people
outside of that city paid much attention to the
ghastly crimes. Had the youths been white and
middle class instead of black and poor, it would
have been a dramatically different story.
In Ciudad Juarez, a poverty-stricken Mexican
border town, more than 400 young women have been
savagely murdered since 1993. Only small,
dedicated groups of local activists and human
rights organizations such as Amnesty
International have shown much interest in
apprehending the person or persons responsible
for the crimes.
The women of Vancouver's downtown east side,
the African American children of Atlanta, and
the young women of Ciudad Juarez all had certain
things in common. They were poor. They were
women and youths. Some had dark skin. And their
lives ended violently.
The people murdered in Atlanta and Ciudad
Juarez were also victims of public indifference.
Will the same eventually be said of the alleged
victims of Robert Pickton?
Andrew Hunt is chair of the history
department at the University of Waterloo.