Jamie Lee Hamilton: How we can honour murdered and missing women in the wake of Pickton's conviction
Hi Friends, I wrote this piece for the Georgia Straight which appeared in their online edition of August 12, 2010
Jamie Lee Hamilton: How we can honour murdered and missing women in the wake of Pickton's conviction
By Jamie Lee Hamilton, August 12, 2010
Since the Robert Pickton trial finally closed off last week, I have found myself with mixed emotions, as I'm certain many of this city share.
The trial, which I could not stomach to attend, brought such horrendous repulsion. I'm certain it did to many others and especially to those who care deeply for the less fortunate in our society.
I know that the women who were brutally murdered on that farm in Port Coquitlam will be remembered for a long, long time.
Much talk has circulated—as it did in the early days—for a public inquiry, especially considering how so many long-term residents of the Downtown Eastside could disappear overnight without a trace and with virtually no action taken.
Nothing can ever bring back these women, but we need to move forward. Just locking Pickton away for a lifetime doesn't address the outstanding question of justice for the missing and murdered women of the DTES. Further, it doesn't address how this violence can be prevented.
Sadly, the victims didn't enjoy respect and dignity while they were living. Therefore, it is incumbent on us to ensure that they receive some measure of dignity and respect after the heinous crimes committed against them.
With the closure of the Pickton file, the 20 other women whose DNA was found on the farm will not receive justice. Pickton, without standing trial, can't be found guilty or not guilty on those remaining charges.
Being attributed as the sole killer of the other 20 women doesn't provide any closure without a trial, and therefore justice has been denied. What this means is that no one else will ever be charged or implicated with killing these women.
Everyone I speak with believes that other persons were involved in the killings, and I also happen to share that belief. Tragically other murderers could now go free. Snubbing out another person's life has no consequences, and this is deeply appalling.
In fact, it is terribly obscene.
Unfortunately there is little we can do about this as the Crown has determined nothing will change by making Pickton stand trial on the additional 20 counts.
As a society though, we must awaken to the fact that change must happen. Murder victims deserve justice.
No matter what social or economic class you come from, this should play no part on the entitlement of justice. Everyone under the law is entitled to justice and this tenet of law and Canadian values must prevail.
So what can be done to ensure respect and dignity to those who lost their life through no fault of their own?
Many are demanding a public inquiry. In the early days of the disappearing women, I was one of only a handful demanding such an inquiry.
I don't want an investigation just so we can blame others. Or an inquiry to make others feel happy.
There is enough blame to go round. However, we must move beyond placing blame so as a city with interconnected communities and neighbourhoods, we can heal from the horrendous, inexcusable violence that has occurred to hundreds of our citizens.
I do have some reservations about an inquiry, because I know there will be much grandstanding. Others would like nothing else but to pin the tail on the donkey, but we can't go there.
We need an inquiry as a fact-finding mission. From this official government review, there needs to be some solid recommendations on how this violence can be prevented—and trust me, violence against sex workers can be prevented.
Currently, I work as a research assistant on the West End Sex Work History and Memorial Project in collaboration with the University of British Columbia. The lead investigator is Dr Becki Ross, is chair of UBC women's studies.
Our preliminary data collected to date demonstrates that prior to 1984, there was little or no evidence suggesting that prostitution was inherently dangerous.
Sadly, though, we have collected evidence that shows the City of Vancouver under then-mayor Mike Harcourt enacted the street activities bylaw, which targeted West End sex workers with fines of up to $2,000
In a six-month period in 1982 and 1983, the city collected an obscene amount of $28,000 off the backs of prostitutes.
Tragically, none of these fines were used to assist sex workers in exiting or providing them with opportunities.
In July 1984 to compound matters, then-chief justice Allan McEachern received an application from the then-B.C. attorney general Brian Smith, who was seeking a court order and injunction stripping sex workers of their fundamental rights.
With one quick stroke of his pen, McEachern mass-evicted sex workers from their community, forcing them to work east of Seymour Street.
After the injunction, as women and men were pushed into dark, deserted industrial areas of the city, violence and murder rates against this population soared.
No public apology has ever been offered from the city to prostitutes. Moreover, the province has remained silent regarding its role, and even though there was a subcommittee of Parliament established in 2006 to investigate this issue of violence against sex workers, no recommendations were ever made.
After Pickton's arrest in 2002, another 25 women have gone missing or have been murdered in the Metro Vancouver region. Just like in the early days of the missing women cases, these new disappearances were met with indifference or complete denial.
In fact, one young aboriginal women, Danielle Larue, was murdered shortly after the Pickton arrest, and her killer remains at large. He anonymously sent a letter to the Vancouver Police Department expressing his remorse.
At a police board meeting held at the Vancouver Aboriginal Friendship Centre, deputy chief Doug LePard denied that any women had gone missing after Pickton's arrest.
However, LePard has recently issued an apology on behalf of the Vancouver police, and this apology seems genuinely sincere.
Surely we can move forward, as the Vancouver Police Department has. We need to address this heinous violence and how to prevent it.
Mayor Gregor Robertson during his campaigning nearly two years ago promised to establish a city roundtable on prostitution and this has not yet happened. He also stated he was open to a civic apology regarding the fines levied out against Vancouver prostitutes in 1982 and 1983.
He has been silent on this front ever since.
Even now, former attorney general, Wally Oppal, who oversaw the Pickton file, has announced that he doesn't think a public review of the missing and murdered cases is necessary.
Interestingly, he doesn't say what is necessary and I would hope a man of his prominence and intelligence (he is after all a learned judge) would have some ideas on what we can do to ensure that this type of violence is eliminated from society.
Here are a few offered recommendations, which I believe will stem the violence that occurs all too frequently against our vulnerable populations:
1) A civic apology issued in memoriam to the West End sex workers who were harmed from actions taken by the city. Many of these individuals sadly are no longer with us. A memorial marker remembering their contributions and marking their history in the West End neighborhood is in order.
2) The city should immediately establish this promised roundtable on prostitution.
3) A harm-reduction approach on prostitution is needed . If I were a member of council, I would ask former mayor Philip Owen to steer this harm-reducing policy through. He has the knowledge, compassion, and expertise. Owen brought in the harm-reduction approach to drug use, and this philosophy has saved and improved the quality of life for thousands of people.
4) Many women in the DTES are drug addicted and involved in prostitution. Many also have mental-health issues, and a number of the missing and murdered women resided at the Portland Hotel. I believe that the PHS Community Services Society has the expertise needed to initiate a program to help sex workers cope and, ideally, find exiting strategies, which would greatly improve their lives.
It's the only agency in the DTES capable of doing this work , and it needs the funding so it can hire a coordinator-consultant to start assisting vulnerable women escape the harsh and hopeless situations in which they are now entrenched.
5) There needs to be a treatment, detox, and housing program designed and established specifically for women and men needing these programs to exit the sex trade. The province could really assist in this regard by funding a safe place away from the city, where men and women involved in prostitution could receive the supportive services that they need.
6) The immediate decriminalization of prostitution laws 213 (communicating) and 210 (bawdy house section), which make it impossible for women and men to be safe and out of harm's way. These sections of the Criminal Code have contributed to the continued harm and escalating violence associated with involvement in street prostitution. Any law that doesn't help citizens with their safety and security needs can't be considered a good law. These sections need to be repealed, whereas the exploitation, trafficking and violence sections related to this area of the law need to be strengthened.
What will scar me forever is that Jane Doe, whose DNA was found on the Pickton farm, remains to this day unidentified. I just can't believe that anyone, regardless of their situation in life, could be forgotten in this way.
Jane Doe signals to me and I'm certain to others that many of the missing and murdered women's problems started before engagement in prostitution. Their need to survive by making the choices they made should bring no shame.
No matter what, Sarah, Tracey, Helen, Janet, Angela, Serena, Mona, Marnie, Stephanie, and the many other victims all deserved to live. Their lives had value and meaning. Moreover, they were contributing members of society. We owe them and we owe Jane Doe.
Through their tragic loss of life, there must come recognition and acceptance that we systematically failed these citizens. There must come an even stronger commitment to ensure that we will do everything possible so that these crimes against humanity won't ever happen again.
Jamie Lee Hamilton is a Vancouver advocate for sex workers. She will speak on Friday (August 13) at 7 p.m. at the Women and History conference at the Wosk Centre