VANCOUVER EASTSIDE MISSING WOMEN
In her sisterís own words
Book by Maggie de Vries commemorates life of missing sister
Thursday, July 24, 2003
Maggie de Vries, the sister of a woman whose DNA was found on Robert (Willy) Pickton's Port Coquitlam pig farm, has written a powerful book about her. Arriving in bookstores over the coming days, Missing Sarah will only heighten the emotional charge of this week's developments in the gruesome serial-murder case: the conclusion of the preliminary hearing, the expansion of the search for victims' DNA and Wednesday's news that Pickton has been committed to trial on 15 counts of first-degree murder.
CREDIT: Darren Stone, CanWest News Service; Victoria Times Colonist
Maggie de Vries, with her adopted sister's journal, has written a book about Sarah de Vries, whose DNA was found on Robert Pickton's Port Coquitlam farm.
"I'm hoping that people will really be open to what she has to say and listen to her as an equal," Maggie de Vries said of the memoir, which contains poems and journal entries written by her younger sister.
"For me, Sarah is present [in the words she left behind]," explained de Vries, a Vancouver children's author who also edits children's books for Victoria's Orca Book Publishers.
Ed Carson, president of Penguin Canada, said from Toronto that Missing Sarah was originally slated for September publication but happened to be finished ahead of schedule.
"It is a coincidence that it was finished off [at the time of] the news that's been hitting the media lately. We saw no reason to hold back."
Sarah de Vries was a beautiful young woman -- she was 28 when she disappeared from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside five years ago -- whose mixed blood gave her dark skin, curly hair and a wide smile. Adopted as a baby by a University of B.C. professor and one of Vancouver General Hospital's head nurses, she grew up in West Point Grey with three older siblings.
The letters she sent to de Vries before their parents' marriage broke up and before she started running away to downtown streets show a little girl who was excited about life. At 10, she wrote a bubbly letter that said, "My room is cleaner than ever before in my little life. I'm taking swimming lessons and I'm in intermediate. I'm taking gym lessons. I can fall into a backbend. The teacher calls me Miss Flexible because of all the bendy things I can do."
But de Vries also reports that Sarah encountered racism. When she was a toddler, a woman trying to puzzle out why a white family had a dark-skinned little girl bluntly asked the question "What is she?" And later there were racist taunts from other children.
The book documents with painstaking care Sarah's gradual descent into a life of drug addiction and street prostitution. De Vries, now 41, kept in touch with her, despite the eight-year difference in their ages and despite the heartbreak Sarah's dangerous risk-taking behaviour caused her family.
After Sarah became one of Vancouver's dozens of missing women, de Vries found herself joining forces with the other women's family members to pressure the police to investigate the possibility that the disappearances were linked.
She also began spending more time on the Downtown Eastside, talking to people who had known Sarah.
"I found out that they were decent people ... and that there was a real community structure [there]," de Vries said. "Even though many people are suffering in various ways, they're all still connected to each other and doing the best they can. I stopped having blinkers on, when I went down there."
Her research into her sister's life has also led her to think differently about drug addiction and prostitution. She interviewed Simon Fraser University criminologist John Lowman and Char Lafontaine, of Prostitution Alternatives Counselling and Education (PACE) for the chapter titled "Sex Work in Vancouver." In it, she writes that "we must provide places where all women who work as prostitutes can do so safely."
Sarah de Vries gave birth to two children. Jeanie, now 12, and Ben, 7, were born drug-addicted and so spent the first weeks of their lives being led through withdrawal at Sunny Hill Health Centre.
They are being raised in Ontario by Sarah and Maggie's mother, Patricia, and Patricia's sister, the eminent children's author Jean Little.
"They're doing well," de Vries said. "Sarah was very beautiful, they're very beautiful. Sarah had a strong personality, and so do they.
"They know about all of this," she continued, meaning their mother's life on the street and many of the sordid details of what happened on the Pickton property.
That, she said, "is very tough for them. I can't even really imagine what it would be like for them, compared to what it's like for me. But we're all so glad they're in our lives because they're amazing kids."
Carson said Missing Sarah doesn't threaten the court-imposed publication ban on reporting about the case since it is not directly about the case.
He predicted it will be a "word-of-mouth book" and a "compelling read for any woman who has a sister or [any person] who has lost someone."
© Copyright 2003 Vancouver Sun
Updated: January 01, 2007