VANCOUVER EASTSIDE MISSING WOMEN
Hopefully the humanity of the female victims will survive as the days and months of the Pickton trial go by
By THANE BURNETT
January 24, 2007
While sorting through the muck of evidence in the Robert Pickton mass-murder trial, can the humanity of the victims possibly survive in the filth?
There's been a common element in the coverage during the opening of the West Coast trial of the pig farmer and the missing women from Vancouver's Downtown East side -- not sensationalism, but largely respect for the dead.
Most news agencies have tried to remind the public the bits and parts of the souls allegedly found on Pickton's farm -- fragments of horror which threaten to overwhelm everything else in the stories -- were real people who were once loved and hoped for better days.
Whether it's lingering guilt, that society didn't do more for these women when they started to go missing, or an acceptance that they were mothers, daughters and sisters, the initial reporting has dwelled on the recollection of friends and the snapshots of happier days.
But I wonder, in the days and months and trials to come, whether the victims will slowly lose their humanity, to become simply carnage.
"I think that's very possible -- that the acts are so horrific, that their (humanity) may get lost," says Wayne Leng, a friend of Sarah deVries, who is among Pickton's alleged victims, though not among those named in this, his first, trial.
"As more evidence comes out, many people may not be able to look past it.
"I just hope we continue to see stories which remind us ... these women had hopes that weren't any different than anyone else."
Sarah deVries, at 28 years old, disappeared from Vancouver's streets in April 1998. Her family took the case to the media, and friends, like Leng, started up an Internet campaign -- www.missingpeople.net. Her vanishing helped raise the alarm bells that she was part of something more than just a missing person's file.
Since she was lost, those who loved Sarah in life and protect her memory in death have constantly reminded strangers of her human worth -- her sister Maggie deVries even wrote a compelling book, Missing Sarah, based on Sarah's poems and writings.
In her journals, which talked about other women going missing, Sarah once darkly wondered: "Will they remember me when I'm gone, or would their lives carry on?"
So far, people have remembered her -- more than just as a runaway who got caught up in prostitution, drugs and murder.
Leng befriended her during a low point in his life. He has since moved on -- now works in California -- but has tried to keep a candle burning for Sarah.
"I hope people can continue to know (the victims) as people," he says. "Maybe through
stories by friends or a snapshot as a child."
Some time ago, I sat in a Guelph living room with Sarah's mother, Pat deVries, and her aunt, children's author Jean Little. Sarah's two children are being raised there.
This week, Pat was away, and I'm told she wasn't giving interviews -- something I understand.
But during our earlier meeting, she was honest about Sarah's troubled days, there were many -- and nightmare end -- so far, coloured by rumour and speculation and dark imaginings. But, opening a book with a lock of Sarah's hair, she stressed her daughter's dignity and quiet moments.
Inside the book is a drawing by Sarah, when she was 7 years old, of herself holding a green balloon.
There are pictures of Sarah in a stroller outside Norman's grocery store.
A few pages over is her 1976 Water Safety Junior certificate, with a note from the coach pointing out she needs more practice on her strokes. And then pictures of her lining up for a sports day at her Vancouver-area school, and another of her skating in a park near her home.
Her mom, during that previous interview, told me Sarah hated the taste of tomatoes but loved eggs and cheese. That she once loved to draw and do cartwheels.
"They will know she hated tomatoes," Jean told me of Sarah's children. "They'll remember that first."
Sarah, whose father was a travelling evangelist in Mexico and whose mother was never meant to be a mother, was adopted by Pat and her husband on Feb. 10, 1971.
Pat showed me a letter from the superintendent of child welfare, which pointed out: "(Sarah) has become, for all purposes, your child, and you have become her parents, as if she had been born to you."
I hope what we now read and hear of these women, we can continue to see them in this same light.
Updated: August 21, 2016