VANCOUVER EASTSIDE MISSING WOMEN
A sister remembers as society forgets
Tragic tale of B.C. hooker, pig farm victim
Friday, September 12, 2003
Her voice lives on. Even as the pig farmer linked to her murder made yet another court appearance yesterday, Sarah de Vries' haunting words about her life as a street prostitute are finally being heard through her sister's touching tribute, Missing Sarah; A Vancouver Woman Remembers Her Vanished Sister.
Maggie de Vries sits in a Toronto restaurant waiting to hear if Robert Pickton will be charged with her sister's murder in a British Columbia courtroom.
He already faces 15 murder charges, making him Canada's worst alleged serial killer. Sarah de Vries' DNA has also been found on his Port Coquitlam pig farm and the Crown is considering seeking a preferred indictment against him for her murder and six others.
But even if the murder charge doesn't come, Sarah's story will not be lost. De Vries was determined that we should know her special, vivacious adopted sister who went missing from her regular corner in Vancouver's notoriously seedy Downtown Eastside on April 14, 1998.
Through Sarah's journals, poetry and letters, we follow her descent from the effervescence of childhood to the pain of drug addiction and prostitution.
"The terrible irony," de Vries said yesterday, "is that she was never heard when she was living and now she's being heard while she's dead. Why is that? Why is that? We should start listening to these women's voices."
Sarah, a child of mixed-race parents, was adopted into the de Vries white, middle-class family when she was 11 months old. Her dark-skinned beauty was no defence against the racist slurs that would dog her through her white Vancouver community.
When her parents split up, she began skipping school and running away to the excitement and camaraderie she found downtown.
By 14, she was selling her pretty body for sex, experimenting with drugs and slipping further and further away from the heartbroken family that loved her.
Yet she never lost contact with them. Sarah would return for Christmas dinners, call on birthdays, even invite them over to the tiny house she rented in Vancouver's skid road.
She would go on to have two children, both born addicted to drugs, who she wisely asked her mother to raise but tried often to see. Sarah was living a life that pained them, especially as the heroin and cocaine took control, but she was still part of their family, their life.
And then she simply vanished.
Her sister, a children's book writer and editor, describes the frustration of dealing with a police force that seemed unconcerned about Sarah's disappearance.
Despite her being a well-known and well-loved personality in the Downtown Eastside community, a woman who kept in constant contact with her family and her friends, her sudden disappearance raised few alarm bells with the authorities.
Initially, her sister didn't realize that Sarah was not the first to vanish. But Sarah knew only too well.
"Am I next? Is he watching me now?" she wrote in December 1995. "So many women, so many that I never even knew about, are missing in action. It's getting to be a daily part of life. That's sad. Somebody dies and it's like somebody just did something normal. I can't find the right words. It's strange. A woman who works the Hastings Street area gets murdered, and nothing."
More than six years later, Pickton, 53, was charged with the first-degree murder of 15 of the more than 60 prostitutes and drug addicts who went missing in the Downtown Eastside.
Like many of the other families, de Vries believes the lack of a co-ordinated police effort -- especially after she sounded the alarm about Sarah -- led to the murders of at least 20 more prostitutes who disappeared through 2000 and 2001.
"I'm going to wait until the trial is over," she vows, "and then I am going to insist that an inquiry takes place."
But the police are not the only ones at fault, de Vries insists.
She believes society's stigmatization of prostitutes and our legal system's criminalization of these desperate women enabled a killer to easily prey on them with virtually no one taking much notice.
Sarah said it best: "It's a shame that society is that unfeeling. She was some woman's baby girl, gone astray, lost from the right path. She was a person."
By reading her journals and telling her story, de Vries feels closer to her sister in death than she did in life.
"Sarah is so present now," she said wistfully. "I was connected with her, I saw her regularly, I desperately wanted to help her, I wanted to have a strong relationship while she was alive.
"But I know so much about her now and I understand her so much better now. When I hold the book in my hands, there's a way in which she is present.
And when I read her words, as I did Tuesday night in Vancouver, I am just a voice for her. She speaks through me. There's a power in it that's a wonderful thing."
And a message that no killer can ever silence.
Updated: August 21, 2016