VANCOUVER EASTSIDE MISSING WOMEN
Murder victim's sister speaks out
Dec 7, 2006
Maggie De Vries was in Guelph on Dec. 6, 1989, when a man murdered 14 female engineering students at a Montreal university.
Her thoughts turned to her sister, Sarah, who had left a comfortable middle class family and was living a life of drug abuse, prostitution and violence on Vancouver's lower east side.
Sarah disappeared less than 10 years later, in 1998. Her DNA was eventually found at Robert Pickton's pig farm in Port Coquitlam, B.C.
Sarah was one of 26 sex trade workers to disappear from downtown Vancouver over several years, and Pickton is charged with murdering them all.
Yesterday, De Vries asked a Dec. 6 memorial dinner in Cambridge to see her sister as a human being, a mother and not so different from the École Polytechnique students murdered by Marc Lepine.
A double standard still exists, De Vries says, that allows the community to identify with the murdered university students, but not sex trade workers -- a prejudice that extended even to De Vries herself.
"We want to turn away," she said.
"I wanted to turn away and didn't want to know what specifically had happened. But I think that we need to really pay attention and bring it home to ourselves, because as a society we're not inclined to take very much action with women who are involved in sex work.
"We see them as so far away from ourselves, so we really have to do everything that we can to bridge that gap so that their lives can become safer."
It was a message her sister Sarah tried to impart in her 28 years, through poetry and journals that eventually helped form De Vries' 2004 book Missing Sarah: A Vancouver Woman Remembers her Vanished Sister. The book was the first published work of adult literature for De Vries, a Vancouver-area children's book author.
In an interview yesterday afternoon, De Vries said she planned to read two of her sister's poems, including one about a friend who was beaten to death on Vancouver's downtown east side that foreshadows Sarah's own death. It begins: "Women's body found beaten beyond recognition. You sip your coffee."
She also planned to read a letter written by a 10-year-old Sarah filled with the matters important to so many little girls: her Halloween costume, her swimming lessons and praise from a gymnastics teacher who calls her "Miss Flexible."
"It's just so chatty, full of so much life and enthusiasm and talent," De Vries said. "I think it challenges people's perceptions about who women are who work on the street. They don't imagine them being a 10-year-old who wanted to dress up as a black cat for Halloween."
Robert Pickton's is expected to go to trial early next month on six murder charges, not including Sarah's.
Jury selection is set for this week.
De Vries hadn't planned on attending any of the court dates or following the resulting news coverage. But she hoped to tell last night's audience about the long process she followed to come to terms with the grim details of her sister's murder and the need for public awareness of its aftermath.
"It's important that we pay attention," she said. "So my wanting to my avert my eyes wasn't only a personal decision, it had larger implications than that because if we don't let ourselves know what's been done then we are still bound to repeat it."
The public needs to realize the violence inflicted on women living on the margins of society affects the larger community, De Vries says.
Not only are the victims people who live among us, so are the perpetrators.
When Vancouver police first formed a task force to investigate the murders they had a list of 600 potential suspects.
"If you were to look at all of the men on that list of 600 I think you'd find quite a wide variety of people who are committing acts of violence," De Vries said. "We need to pull it close to ourselves."
She realizes she was likely preaching to the converted last night among the nearly 160 people who paid $50 toward a scholarship supported by local chapters of the Canadian Federation of University Women.
"By creating a picture of Sarah, sharing some of these things, I hope they see sex-trade workers as real people and maybe pay attention to the trial in a slightly different light," De Vries said. "With a little bit more awareness of the human beings involved."
Updated: January 01, 2007