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Editorial: We're all complicit in women's deaths

Our indifference as a society made Robert Pickton's murders possible

Times Colonist

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The jury was right. Robert Pickton didn't act alone in murdering six women who disappeared from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

Pickton could only kill so easily because as a society we had decided his victims -- mainly addicted women working in the survival sex trade -- were disposable, their deaths to be mourned, or even noticed, only by their families and a handful of others.

Despite all the money and attention focused on the investigation and Pickton's trial, that remains true. The next Robert Pickton will have just as easy a time finding victims on the streets of Vancouver -- or Victoria or Nanaimo. And his crimes will likely receive just as little attention as Pickton's did for so many years.

That should shame us.

Before the missing women's case took its place on the front pages, we could claim ignorance. The world of street-level sex work was a mystery to most of us. The police -- on our behalf -- pushed it out of our sight, into darker and more dangerous districts. They understood that is what we wanted as a society, and from that they also concluded that we did not much care whether those women lived or died.

So when women started disappearing from the Downtown Eastside, no one in a position to take action paid attention. Warnings of a serial killer were dismissed. Prostitutes were kept in the shadows and alleys of Canada's worst neighbourhood (or in dark and largely deserted blocks of Victoria's Rock Bay).

We can no longer claim ignorance. Whatever views Canadians hold on the sex trade, from those who demand it be abolished on moral grounds to those who believe the answer lies in legalization, there should be agreement that what we have been doing is not working. It can only be defended if we accept that some women should die because of the work they do.

About $115 million has been spent on the missing women's case, as it came to be called. The criminal investigation, including the massive search of the Pickton farm, has cost $70 million. The trial on the first six of 26 murder charges cost about $45 million. Appeals and any trial on the remaining 20 charges could push the cost well over $150 million.

Yet we choose to spend almost nothing on the kinds of measures that would have prevented the murders in the first place, or at least greatly reduced the risk.

We will not pay for efforts to bring some safety to the worst neighbourhoods and most victimized people.

We will not provide mental health and addiction services in a form that allows those who most need them to get help. We won't provide affordable housing or the kinds of support that make sex work an option, not a means to survival.

And we will not consider the obvious legal solutions to make prostitution -- which is legal -- also safe for those doing the work. The notion of prostitutes working in a safe area or legal brothel offends us, while we accept the fact that they work daily in desperate and deadly situations.

There seems little purpose in appeals or additional trials. Pickton will certainly spend the rest of his life in prison. Another trial will not provide answers or certainty for families of the victims.

It's understandable that some readers feel overwhelmed by the coverage of this trial and turn the page without reading.

But we have been turning away from these women for decades. We have refused to notice them suffering and dying in the shadows, at the hands of people like Robert Pickton.

It's time we paid attention.

 Times Colonist (Victoria) 2007

 

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Updated: August 21, 2016