When it comes to considering the missing and murder women from the Downtown Eastside, these are the concerns:
• Why did so many things go wrong?
• A lack of trust for police still keeps women from reporting violence.
• What can we learn about solicitation laws and why they don’t work?
• Jurisdictional issues need to be addressed.
• A necessary evaluation of any public program is needed.
• What can we learn about marginalized women and men?
• What do policymakers need to understand and learn?
• It’s not about pointing fingers.
• Why are sex workers treated differently under the law and their safety not taken seriously?
Maggie deVries became what might be considered an unintentional advocate for the missing and murdered women of Vancouver after her sister Sarah deVries disappeared from the Downtown Eastside in April, 1998.
In 2005 Maggie testified, along with 300 other witnesses, at the Parliamentary Sub-Committee on Solicitation Laws, of which I was a member.
Many things about her testimony moved me. Her background as a writer was evident in her eloquent presentation and informed responses. Ms. deVries reiterated what the majority of witnesses told us: that current laws surrounding prostitution are actually hurting women, not helping them. Secondly, she reminded the sub-committee that the opinion and experience of sex workers is more important than the so-called experts when it comes to solutions to the problems facing sex workers. I think of these points in particular as I renew my call for a full public inquiry into the actions of law enforcement surrounding the murdered and missing women of Vancouver.
There have been many people along the way who have tried to help. Year after year, there were calls for a special taskforce to investigate the missing women, warnings from the community that there was a possibility there was a serial killer involved, but it took years for these voices to be taken seriously.
I first called for an inquiry in 2001, and brought the issue to a parliamentary sub-committee in 2003 with the passing of my private members motion for a review of Canada’s solicitation laws. But long before that, based on real concerns from the community, I had supported and called for a special task force.
I remember in 1999, as a federal MP, raising the issue at my first meeting with the then Attorney General of Canada Martin Cauchon. I asked him: “What would you do if you had 57 women who were missing and presumed murdered in your community? Well, that’s what’s happening in the Downtown Eastside.”
He seemed taken aback, and I don’t think he really knew anything about what should have been a national concern.
It’s so shocking to me that if it was any other identifiable group, like nurses, or students from the University of British Columbia, there would have been a national outcry and a much different response.
Not only is a public inquiry necessary, we also need to have a community-led process that allows the families and the Downtown Eastside community deal with the loss and trauma and the impact on so many lives.
An inquiry can’t be about finger pointing for the sake of finger pointing, although only the media and governments are suggesting it would be. But an inquiry also mustn’t be dismissed out of hand because government doesn’t want to waste money or resources on a report that may not have all the answers.
For over two decades, the City of Vancouver, the province of B.C., the Vancouver police force and the RCMP decided the steady disappearance of women, mostly Aboriginal and mostly working in the sex trade, was not worthy of committing the needed resources to put a stop to.
We cannot now simply say that an apology is enough, that one conviction — albeit vital — is enough and that everyone should now move forward. Although the Crown stayed the rest of the charges in this case, we know that here are at least 20 families who are still seeking answers.
The reality is that 70 or more women have gone missing from the Downtown Eastside in the last 30 years and little has changed. There are women disappearing on the Highway of Tears in Northern B.C., and in Saskatchewan and other parts of Canada.
We are learning in dribs and drabs about what happened in the case of the serial murderer of many of these women — standard investigation techniques were set aside, jurisdictional issues arose, internal conflicts were a problem.
But we need to understand why. Why were these women in particular, mostly First Nation, mostly working in the sex trade, why were they allowed to go missing? And we need to understand clearly what has and has not been changed. Are things better? Worse?
An apology is welcome, necessary and helping many to move forward. But what has changed? Don’t think for a minute that with one man behind bars that this is over and we can now move on. Canada’s solicitation laws still do more harm to women than good. The Conservative government — without consultation and without public debate — quietly announced recently significant regulatory changes to the criminal code which place sex workers in the same category as organized criminals, pushing vulnerable women further into the margins of society.
Without an inquiry — documentation of what and why things went so wrong — we will continue to make mistakes at a policy level and law enforcement level.
There is a prejudice against sex workers and women who are at high risk, and most vulnerable. It raises the most serious concerns about our society, the way our judicial system operates and our laws and law-makers.
I have been thinking a lot lately of the 1894 quote by Anatole France that Bruce Eriksen used as part of his mural at Bruce Eriksen Place at Hastings and Main. “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.” (1894)
We might not want to learn that as a society we have allowed laws and policy to be applied differently to different people. But if that is the case, we need to know.
Mistakes, discrimination, racism, harmful laws and policies must be identified and then rectified. We owe to the memory of the missing women.
Libby Davies is the MP for Vancouver East.