VANCOUVER EASTSIDE MISSING WOMEN
Native liaison worker admits telling woman VPD wouldn't make her missing native, drug-addicted mother a priority
BY SUZANNE FOURNIER, THE PROVINCE APRIL 3, 2012
A former native liaison worker warned a young woman that looking for her long-lost mother Elsie Sebastian wouldn’t be a priority for Vancouver police because Elsie was an older, drug-addicted native woman.
Morris Bates, who was one of North America’s best-known Elvis impersonators, admitted to the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry on Tuesday that he told Donnalee Sebastian in 1999 that he doubted the Vancouver police would even bother looking for her mother.
“I tried to find Elsie, first in 1994 when her daughter wanted her mom to be at her high school grad and then in 1999, when her daughter wanted to tell her mom she’d become a grandma to a little boy,” said Bates, a burly man who retired from entertainment to joined the Vancouver Police and Native Liaison Society in 1993.
Bates said he tried to find Elsie but the VPD made no effort at all, to his knowledge. “The police weren’t going to try to find her, but I tried.”
“The family made four separate attempts to engage the VPD in a search for Elsie, in 1993, 1994, 1999 and 2001, but they were not successful?” Bates was asked by lawyer Neil Chantler, acting for the Sebastian family and 24 other families of missing or murdered women.
Bates agreed that he was first contacted about Elsie Sebastian in February, 1994 when VANDU (the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users) founder Ann Livingstone, who was related by marriage to Elsie, asked Bates to look for her. Elsie was 42, a known heroin user, who had children with Robert Sebastian. Bates had been good friends with Robert Sebastian and his brother Gordon Sebastian, a renowned aboriginal rights lawyer, since the three boys were 13.
Bates tried to find Elsie but failed in 1994. He heard street rumours, including some from Downtown Eastside beat cop VPD Const. Dave Dickson, that Elsie was bootlegging rice wine at Oppenheimer Park, might be off partying or “down at the Sunrise (a skid road hotel) behind a mug of beer.”
In 1999, a grieving Donnalee came back to the native liaison society, looking for Elsie to tell her she had become a grandmother. “It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack, that’s what Donnalee was told by you?” Chantler asked Bates, who agreed he likely had said that.
“Because she (Elsie) was a much older native woman, looking for her wouldn’t be a priority for police . . . younger non-aboriginal women would get priority over a 40-year-old native, drug-addicted woman, do you recall saying that?” Chantler asked Bates.
“I might have said something like that,” Bates said, emphasizing he was talking about what the VPD would say about why they hadn’t looked for Elsie, not his own personal feelings.
“Did her mother’s age impact the VPD’s willingness to search for her?” asked Chantler. Bates replied that it would. He also agreed with Chantler that Elsie’s race, as a First Nations woman, and her drug addiction, also made it highly unlikely the VPD would bother searching for her. In fact, the VPD did not open an official missing persons file on Elsie Sebastian until 2001.
Bates, now 62, always knew his mother was from the Shuswap Sugar Cane First Nation reserve near Williams Lake, but didn’t discover until his 40s that his father was Haida.
By then, Bates was at the pinnacle of a career based on an uncannily close resemblance
both in dark, brooding good looks and sultry voice, to the one and only Elvis.
Bates was called “the world’s greatest Elvis impersonator” in many reviews and on his own publicity bills. He toured South Africa, met Nelson Mandela, went to Brazil and Indonesia, and spent 10 years on the Las Vegas strip, where he once sang on the same bill as Ray Charles once in Vegas.
As Bates grew weary of the high-flying life of bright lights, he came back to Vancouver and was shocked to find First Nations women, men and youth living in dire poverty and being openly victimized on the Downtown Eastside. He went back to school and became a native youth counsellor.
Bates spent a decade, from 1993 to 2003, working in the “storefront” offices of the Vancouver Police and Native Liaison Society, which was soon at the eye of the storm that was building as more and more women went missing. Bates was so distraught at the street-entrenched youth that he started a program called “Scared Straight” in which he gave teens from rural reserves an eye-opening tour of seedy alleys where people openly injected heroin or scrabbled for drugs on the filthy pavement.
The Native Liaison Society was inundated with families looking for their missing sisters, aunties and mothers, yet no bodies were ever found, Bates recalled in his memoir called “Morris as Elvis: Taking a Chance on Life.
Bates also related on the stand Tuesday that he vividly recalled the first time a VPD officer appeared to him to recognize that dozens of women were missing and had met with foul play.
The “boyfriend” of a missing woman came to Bates with information that his girlfriend Mona Wilson had not picked up her welfare cheque. Bates asked the native liaison constable he worked with if he could find out whether Wilson, who was dependent on methadone, had picked up her daily allotment.
The constable reported back that Wilson hadn’t been seen, just as a new VPD Missing Persons detective walked in the door. In his book, Bates writes that he told the new detective there was a problem. “When a person doesn’t pick up their free money and free drugs, I think there is something seriously wrong,” Bates said to the detective, who promptly replied, “Morris, she’d dead.”
Bates, who testified about the incident Tuesday, said the Missing Persons detective in 2001 “was the first representative of the Vancouver Police Department to acknowledge to me or possibly to anyone else that there was indeed a serious missing persons problem.”
Once the joint RCMP-VPD Missing Women Task Force got on the Pickton farm in February, 2002, the blood of Mona Wilson was found to have soaked through a mattress in the floor of Robert Pickton’s trailer. She was named in the first two murder charges laid against Pickton on Feb. 22, 2002, and he was convicted of her murder.
Bates has been on the stand for two days, along with Freda Ens, former director of the VPNLS who is still with Victims’ Services, and former Native Liaison officers Det. Const. George Lawson and Const. Jay Johns, who is currently on disability due to a serious motorcycle accident.
The panel has talked openly of how difficult it was, even through their office which was even relocated to within the VPD building, to get past Missing Persons civilian clerk Sandy Cameron. Ens testified that she felt Cameron’s treatment of First Nations families was racist, but also acknowledged that Cameron treated other non-native families poorly, but would go to bat for others who had lost family members.
Cameron will testify later in the inquiry, which is slated to hold less than two dozen more days of testimony, followed by closing arguments which will continue well into May.
Commissioner Wally Oppal has been refused an extension to his funding or time limits and will hand in his final report by the end of June.
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Updated: August 21, 2016