Kady O'Malley, Macleans.ca Updated Wednesday, January 24, 2007, at 15:59 EST
For years, they were the nameless, faceless victims of perhaps the most horrifying crime spree in Canadian history. But with Robert Pickton finally coming to trial nearly five years after the first raid on the British Columbia pig farmer's home, his alleged victims are finally having their stories told.
In fact, with journalists from around the world having descended on Vancouver for a front-row ticket to the most high-profile Canadian murder case since Paul Bernardo's school-girl slayings, the Canadian media appears to be making a concerted effort to ensure the lurid allegations and stomach-turning testimony don't overshadow the women whose deaths are at the heart of the horror.
From the Canadian Press, there is Missing Lives. A special report that provides detailed profiles on every one of the 26 suspected victims, it's based on recollections from family and friends as well as photographs, scraps of poetry and other memoria.
The Vancouver Sun's Lori Culbert took a similar approach, but focused on the six women at the centre of Pickton's first murder trial. Meanwhile, the Sun's Doug Ward recalled that it was his paper that first broke the story of Vancouver's missing women, leading to the police investigation that eventually showed up on the Pickton farm.
Globe and Mail reporters Jane Armstrong and Robert Matas interviewed the families as well, producing a stark account of the emotional conflicts they faced on the eve of the trial. In an effort to find out what drives vulnerable young women to the streets, the Toronto Star's Rosie DiManno talked to current and former sex-trade workers. And going a step further, online news upstart Orato.com sparked controversy with its plan to bring in two former prostitutes to cover the trial for the web.
Underscoring the grisly nature of the trial was special note to National Post readers from editor-in-chief Doug Kelly. Warning that upcoming testimony will be "extremely graphic and disturbing to many readers," Kelly argued that it's the responsibility of the media to report "fully, fairly and accurately." At the same time, he stressed that the Post will strive to be "respectful of the sensitivities of readers, mindful of the victims' families, and without falling into sensationalism."
Contending with similar concerns, CBC news editor Tony Burman acknowledged in his weekly column that some viewers are already angered by the extent of the coverage: "“Do we need to know that these poor women’s bodies were found terribly dismembered in buckets?” asked one radio listener. “Where is your discretion?" According to Burman, with the first day of the trial having passed, the network will pull back from saturation coverage. One group that might be relieved to hear that is WISH, a drop-in centre for sex-trade workers. Concerned that its clients could become targets for journalists looking for a little local colour, the group is providing women with advice on how to handle the media.
As the mainstream media struggles to tell the Pickton story, local artists have been inspired to go further - immortalizing the names and faces of his alleged victims in paintings, photographs and song.
Last December, a trio of Vancouver musicians penned "The Streets Where You Live", and enlisted the talents of some of Canada's best-known artists - including Ron Sexsmith, Gord Downie and Mary Margaret O'Hara - to give voice to its stark depiction of life as a street worker. Part aural memorial and part public awareness campaign, all proceeds from the song are earmarked for the Vancouver-based Via Nova Society, which supports treatment and transition for women with addictions.
On the big screen, last fall saw the release of Unnatural and Accidental - a film that, while not explicitly about the Pickton case, revolves around the efforts of a group of native women to evade a serial killer who preys on the poor. And the Access Artist Run Centre, a Vancouver art gallery, recently hosted two shows exploring the plight of the vanished women: Missing, a mixed-media installation by Vancouver visual artist Femke van Delft, and The Diana Project, a digital film by Johanna Mercer lashing out at local officials for turning a blind eye to the disappearances for so long.
Other upcoming exhbits include portrait series that will eventually include all fifty missing women, by artist Betty Kovacic. "We have to remember that each woman was a whole human being who had feelings and families and dreams," Kovacic told The Globe and Mail earlier this month.
That point sometimes appeared to be lost back when each of the victims was known only as an anonymous "sex worker" - and, arguably, back when their disappearances received scant attention from local police. But with the blanket coverage now being afforded them, it will be hard to forget.