On a chilly October day, people listened somberly and some wept quietly as the words were read out loud, a microphone amplifying them across Vancouver’s Library Plaza:
“The record … reveals that violence against sex workers was widespread.”
“The Vancouver Police Department discriminated against survival sex workers by failing to deploy adequate resources to address the risks they knew were faced by sex workers.”
“Stereotyping, overt expressions of bigotry and discriminatory attitudes against sex workers, drug users, and Aboriginal women undermined the investigations of missing women.”
“The Vancouver Police Department and RCMP actively suppressed public recognition that serial killers were killing sex workers working in the Downtown Eastside.”
Some family members of the Missing and Murdered Women, current and former survival sex workers, and sex worker allies and advocates (including myself), had come together on October 25 for an emotional public reading of a 102-page report by Jason Gratl, who was appointed as Independent Counsel to the Commissioner of the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry to represent the interests of sex workers and community advocates in the Downtown Eastside. The Inquiry itself was launched last year to find out what went wrong with the investigation into the serial murders of sex workers in B.C. by Robert Pickton.
Gratl’s report on the Inquiry is scathing in its indictment of the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) and RCMP. Many individual officers and civilian employees are singled out for criticism, but the shocking failures and bigoted views reached all the way up to senior ranks, permeating the entire force and sabotaging the entire investigation. The report’s title says it all: “Wouldn’t Piss on Them If They Were on Fire: How Discrimination Against Sex Workers, Drug Users and Aboriginal Women Enabled A Serial Killer”. It is a direct quote from the Inquiry testimony of a VPD officer assigned to the “Missing Women” case.
To read the report on your own is heartbreaking enough — but to read it aloud, to hear the callous sexism and racism of the police laid bare in the public square — was almost overwhelming. Some of the readers — 25 of them taking turns — broke down at the mike. One was unable to continue. “This event felt powerful because it brought many of us together to speak the truth and honour the women,” said Kerry Porth, a former survival sex worker and part of the organizing group for this “Honouring Truth” event.
The overall police attitude towards sex workers and Aboriginal women (60 per cent of the Missing and Murdered Women were Aboriginal) was one of indifference and disrespect, as if their lives did not matter, as if they weren’t even human. Missing persons reports were often not taken or not investigated because officers relied on insulting stereotypes, such as Aboriginal women being “out on a binge,” or survival sex workers being transient and “lacking address books, known schedules, reliable routines and homes” — even though most are residents of Vancouver with homes and families.
Police routinely used the word “hooker,” even in official documents. Some officers or staff were hateful or dismissive towards sex workers, saying things like: “fucking whores,” “just a bunch of fucking hookers,” and “we don’t look for missing hookers.” A witness at the Inquiry testified that she heard an officer say “good” when told that a sex worker had been violently sexually assaulted. These discriminatory attitudes about sex workers undermined the investigation, according to Gratl, by “precluding the gathering and analysis of vital information about missing women, by misdirecting police investigators, by undermining the integrity of investigative teams, and by preventing investigators from drawing inferences crucial to solving the cases.”
Comparisons with unrelated cases showed that the VPD had the resources and capability to carry out large-scale, high-quality investigations, but the “Missing Women” case was always grossly underfunded and understaffed. An officer assigned to the file in 1998 worked mostly alone and unsupervised for almost a year even though she was inexperienced and lacked training in investigative work.
The doctrine adhered to by the VPD and government was that the women were just missing, not murdered (an assumption still reflected today in the omission of “Murdered Women” from the Inquiry’s name). But the police had many strong indications that a serial killer was likely involved, and even a list of suspects that included Pickton. The VPD tried to squash the growing recognition of a serial killer at work by engaging in a vicious smear campaign against the family and friends of Missing and Murdered Women who complained about the police’s refusal to even investigate the possibility. Advocacy groups and individuals in the Downtown Eastside who tried to raise awareness were attacked using police powers and resources — for example, the VPD publicly defamed the authors of a PACE Society report on violence against sex workers that criticized the police, removed the PACE representative from sensitivity training for its recruits, and arrested sex worker advocate Jamie Lee Hamilton for running a brothel that helped keep street workers safe. Even dissenting police officers and civilian employees who wanted to look for a serial killer were silenced and marginalized.
The RCMP and VPD also misled higher-ranking officials and the general public and media. At least 87 newspaper articles during the Inquiry’s period of reference (1997 to 2002) repeated the police’s public message that that there was “no evidence of a serial killer.” Although the Vancouver Police Board and B.C.’s Attorney General supported a reward for information and a serial killer task force, the VPD persuaded them that a reward would be “counterproductive and a waste of resources” and that a task force was unnecessary, since the “women said to be missing were likely not even missing.” According to Gratl, the deception of the Attorney General “directly contributed to the failure of the investigation.”
B.C.’s Crown Counsel shares some of the blame. Largely because of a “self-imposed shortage of time,” Crown counsel Randi Connor decided to stay attempted murder charges against Pickton in January 1998. Tragically, in the intervening four years until the serial killer’s arrest, 19 more women disappeared who were later connected to Pickton’s farm.
Our public reading of Gratl’s report was scheduled to coincide with the much-awaited release of the final report of the Missing Women Commission Inquiry. But on the same day of the reading, B.C.’s Attorney General granted another extension to Wally Oppal, Commissioner of the Inquiry. The report is now due November 30.
Will truth be honoured and justice served when Oppal’s report finally comes out? Sex workers and their allies do not have high hopes. Early on, the Inquiry lost credibility with the very people it was supposed to help, when the B.C. government denied legal funding to 13 community and Aboriginal groups from the Downtown Eastside who had valuable knowledge and experience with the Missing and Murdered Women case. All but one of these groups were forced to withdraw from the Inquiry, and others soon followed in solidarity.
The Inquiry’s hearings began last October and lasted till June 2012. The plodding pace accelerated to a mad rush in the final months, with Oppal refusing to call certain critical witnesses at the request of family members and lawyers, cutting off cross-examination of key police witnesses, and lumping witnesses together on panels, which meant they couldn’t be adequately questioned. In March, the lawyer appointed by the Commission to represent Aboriginal people, Robyn Gervais, resigned to protest the lack of Aboriginal witnesses. Although both the provincial government and Oppal had rebuffed family members’ requests to hear more witnesses because of the time crunch, when the hearings wrapped up, Oppal requested and received a four-month extension to write his report.
Family members and community groups condemned the Inquiry as a “sham” while the lawyer appointed to represent the families of the Missing and Murdered Women, Cameron Ward, called the Inquiry a “fiasco.”
Nonetheless, much useful and damning information did come out in the Inquiry, as demonstrated by Gratl’s hard-hitting report. It remains to be seen whether Oppal’s report will honour truth and justice in the same way, and whether he adopts any of Gratl’s 32 recommendations. These cover numerous reforms to practices and policies of the police and Crown Counsel, financial compensation to the children and grandchildren of Missing and Murdered Women, harm reduction services for street sex workers, human rights and labour protections for sex workers, and decriminalization of sex work or non-enforcement of the communication offence (section 213 of the Criminal Code), among others.
Although Robert Pickton has now been in jail for 10 years, it appears that very little has changed in the VPD and RCMP. “We certainly know these discriminatory attitudes and practices are still the norm,” said co-organizer Kerry Porth. At the close of the event, a group of readers recited the names of about 60 Missing and Murdered Women, accentuating the painful reality that these were real human beings who had lives, families, dignity, and hope. “We will not forget our sisters,” said Porth. “We will not forget their names and their faces. We will keep fighting for real change.”
The author is grateful to Esther Shannon, co-organizer of the Honouring Truth event, for contributing to this article.
Joyce Arthur is a founding member of FIRST, a national feminist sex worker advocacy organization based in Vancouver that lobbies for the decriminalization of prostitution in Canada.