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Finally, justice for forgotten victims

By RACHEL GIESE
TORONTO SUN

Friday, January 5, 2006

Monday would have marked the start of the two-part trial of Robert Pickton, the west coast farmer accused of killing 26 women -- most of them prostitutes and addicts -- from one of Canada's bleakest neighbourhoods, Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. But due to several pre-trial issues that need to be sorted out, the start of the trial is postponed until Jan. 22.

For the families of the victims -- and indeed the victims themselves -- it's another long two weeks of waiting for justice in a case that has dragged on for nearly two decades.

The first woman to disappear was Rebecca Guno in 1983. Over the next 19 years, more than 60 others vanished. In 2002, after a months-long investigation, police finally found DNA evidence of 31 of them on Pickton's farm outside of Vancouver.

The women who disappeared are the kind of people who are easily lost. Some were alienated from their families. Some moved around a lot as a result of the chaos of poverty and addiction. Some preferred the anonymity of living on the streets.

Still, when some loved ones did report a sister, daughter or friend missing, they were told not to worry, told that these kind of women disappear all the time, told that they'd eventually turn up.

It took years for the Vancouver Police to invest serious staff power into the missing person files of the city's Downtown Eastside. And, to make matters worse, for a long time, the police doubted there was a serial killer at work.

Perhaps that assumption had some merit -- a street prostitute's life is a dangerous one and any john could be a predator -- but it was an assumption that cost many of the victims their lives.

How many women might have been spared had the police acted more forcefully and more quickly? And how differently would the police have reacted if it had been 60 middle-class, suburban mothers who had disappeared? Or 60 investment bankers?

It's not just in Vancouver that prostitutes have been targeted and their deaths or disappearances left unresolved. Just this week in Edmonton, a man was charged for the second time with the murder of a sex trade worker. But so far he is the only person to face any charges in a region where 25 prostitutes have been killed or gone missing in 30 years.

Amidst the shocking headlines and graphic footage it's easy to forget the humanity of these women -- they have become victims first, people second. In Ipswich, England, where five prostitutes were killed over a period of 10 days in December, some media outlets were criticized for their salacious coverage and demeaning attitude toward the women. Here in Canada, the Vancouver murder victims were also initially best known for their grim deaths rather than for the entirety of their lives lived.

Luckily, these women have had strong advocates who have given them a voice. The Vancouver Sun's Lindsay Kines was the first reporter to cover the disappearances, which in part helped to push the police into broadening their investigation. (You can find much of Kines's dogged coverage on www.missingpeople.net.)

And of course there are the families of the victims who have come forward to honour and mourn the dead women. Chief among them is Maggie de Vries, whose sister Sarah disappeared in 1998. Maggie de Vries's moving book, Missing Sarah, revealed a smart, determined, creative woman, who despite her troubles, was much loved by her family.

Let's hope for these grieving families that this long overdue trial will finally bring them some peace.



Have a letter for the editor? E-mail it to editor@tor.sunpub.com

Copyright 2006, Canoe Inc. All rights reserved.

 

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Updated: August 21, 2016