After the Pickton trial: what lives on

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"We inherit not 'what really happened' to the dead but what lives on from that happening, what is conjured from it, how past generations and events occupy the force fields of the present, how they claim us, and how they haunt, plague, and inspirit our imaginations and visions for the future." -Wendy Brown, Politics Out of History


After several years spent researching the events surrounding the disappearances and deaths of so many women from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, there is only one thing I know for sure: that knowing "what really happened" to those women does little to help us struggle with the stunning complexity of "what lives on from that happening."

This is the thought that kept running through my head last January, as I sat in shocked silence in the overflow courtroom in New Westminster, B.C. on the first day of Robert William Pickton's trial for the murders of Sereena Abotsway, Mona Wilson, Andrea Joesbury, Marnie Frey, Brenda Wolfe, and Georgina Papin.

I thought I was prepared that day for what I was about to hear, as I was no stranger to the circumstances surrounding the trial. But as I listened to Crown council describe, in the cold, matter-of-fact language of legal-eze, "what really happened" to those six women, I knew that I was not prepared, not at all. And I wondered how knowing this information could make any difference to the injustices the women experienced, injustices which continue to shape the present.

Now that the trial is over and this lone individual has been convicted and sent to prison for the rest of his life, there is a sense that we can "move on," that with the verdict comes "closure." I am in awe of the family members who stuck through this trial, and am grateful that the verdict has given some of them a sense of relief. I also know that some media commentators made an effort to point out that little has changed for women in the Downtown Eastside in the years since Pickton's arrest. A spattering of stories along these lines appeared in the day or two after the verdict and sentencing. They've all but disappeared now, though, which is unfortunate, since what lives on from the deaths of so many women has everything to do with the ongoing injustices evident in this neighbourhood.

Family members of the disappeared women, Downtown Eastside activists, and some politicians and journalists have called for increased funding and support for women in the Downtown Eastside, increased protections for women doing sex work, and an investigation into how the police (mis)handled reports of women going missing from the neighbourhood. All of these are extremely important. But what I think most of us have yet to consider are the social dimensions of the suffering and loss that has taken place. In other words, how are we all implicated in the disappearances and deaths of so many women, even if we live hundreds of miles away and had no prior relationship with them? How are these events both written and sustained by the arrangements of our social world?

Let me give you an example. There has been a noticeable shift in mainstream media representations of the women who were disappeared. Early descriptions emphasized how the women were "prostitutes" and "drug-addicts," while recent descriptions tend to focus more on the women's roles as mothers, sisters, and daughters. This shift has come about mainly through the determination of the women's family members, who refused to let the world know their loved ones only through such narrow descriptions of how they lived their lives. But why did we need to know that the women were also mothers, sisters, and daughters in order to care about their fate? Does this imply that, generally speaking, many of us don't consider people labelled "prostitutes" and "drug-addicts" to be worthy of our concern? What might this shift then tell us about the assumptions that underpin our social world and our everyday interactions with others?

The mainstream media has also paid little attention to the fact that the women who were disappeared from the Downtown Eastside were disproportionately Indigenous. This fact makes me wonder how European colonization and settlement of the land now known as Canada is related to this present-day violence.

Of course, it's often said that the past is, well, past âe" that what happened in the past is over, finished, done, relevant to the present only in the form of a history lesson. According to that logic, colonization is a completed project. It is something we might lament, or decry, but it's seldom thought to be ongoing in the present. And yet Vancouver's Downtown Eastside is often talked about today using the language and metaphors of the Frontier; it is repeatedly described as a kind of "Wild West" zone.

These descriptions invite us to imagine the Downtown Eastside as a bordered space that is ripe for conquest and resettlement. This happens not only through media representations, but also through plans to "clean up" and "bring order" to the neighbourhood, and through efforts to gentrify it (which are all happening right now at an alarming pace in advance of the 2010 Olympics). So, I wonder: what is the relationship between these descriptions that invite a new "conquest" of the land and the terrible violence that has been inflicted disproportionately on Indigenous women from this neighbourhood?

A lot of emphasis has been put on getting us to think about "what really happened" to the women who were murdered. Learning the Crown's version of what really happened to the women at the opening of the trial, and learning it again and again in countless media re-presentations of those facts, has done nothing to help me confront the staggering realities of these events. In fact, those sensational details might distract us from the more difficult but perhaps more important task of thinking about what lives on from that happening.

Despite the conclusion of Pickton's first trial, I'm far from certain that we now know (or can ever know) all of "what really happened" to allow so many women to disappear for such a long stretch of time.

This doesn't mean that we shouldn't try to find out. But perhaps now that the trial is over we might shift our attention to what lives on, in the interests of a present (and future) that might be otherwise.

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