Highway of Tears Chapter Two

By Morgan O’Neal

Meanwhile the Vancouver Sun recently reported that one of the women missing from the Downtown Eastside had turned up alive. Lucky for her, and her family. This report followed directly upon a long human interest story in the Week-end Sun about the toils and troubles of the Vancouver Police Force Missing Person’s Squad. The story on the Squad emphasized the successes as opposed to the negative coverage it had received over recent years due to the botched investigation into the Downtown Eastside Missing Women. This negative perception was further exacerbated by the steadily increasing number of young women going missing in Northern British Columbia along the now infamous Highway of Tears.

The Vancouver Police Department’s missing persons unit was rightly criticized in the 1990s for its response to sex-trade workers vanishing from the Downtown Eastside. The list finally grew to as high as 69 women who vanished between 1978 and 2001. Port Coquitlam pig farmer Robert (Willie) Pickton has since been charged with killing 26 of those women, but even this upcoming trial threatens to degenerate into sensationalism and even perhaps mistrial, not to mention the huge legal costs of defending the accused.

Two years ago The Vancouver Sun obtained a scathing internal audit of the Missing Persons Unit, written in October 2004, which found that understaffing, inadequate supervision and shoddy record-keeping compromised the ability of the squad to solve cases. There was criticism of the leadership provided by the former head of the unit who was suspended in April 2005.
No great surprise then that the unit has been trying to improve its relationship with other police departments and agencies, such as search and rescue outfits, so they can better work together. And the B.C. Missing Persons Centre has been created by Mounties and municipal police to write new policy for missing persons investigations. Perhaps these changes will bear fruit in future investigations, but the damage has already been done in terms of the Highway of Tears. The more time that goes by without any charges being laid, the less chance there is that anyone will ever be convicted of these heinous crimes.

The Missing Persons Unit responded to criticism by developing new policies to deal with chronic run-away youths – who represented almost 95 per cent of missing person reports — and is apparently now working more efficiently with group homes, the Ministry for Children and Families, and other caregivers. Between August 2005 and August 2006 the unit recorded a 23 % drop in missing person reports, which is attributed to the changes in handling runaways. Or perhaps people just don’t bother to report anymore, expecting the worst.
Kate Gibson, executive director of the WISH (Women’s Information Safe Haven) drop-in centre for sex-trade workers in the Downtown Eastside, said the department’s efforts to improve the unit should be commended. A spokesperson for the Missing Women Task Force said all the sex-trade workers who have recently disappeared from Vancouver have been found, and that there are no outstanding files with the VPD. And the force is quick to point out that the unit doesn’t categorize missing people according to occupations. “Whether she’s from here [the Downtown Eastside] or from the West End of Vancouver, everyone gets the same treatment,” added a 20-year VPD veteran. “We don’t pick and choose who we look for.” This statement is of course a baldfaced lie.

All these recent seemingly unrelated news stories in the mainstream media bring into focus a fundamental fact of Canadian life. Systemic racism is alive and well in this country, and everywhere one looks the victims of this racism are without support. As Ernie Crey, long time activist and brother of one of the women missing from the Vancouver Downtown Eastside now linked to the Picton trial, states, “We cannot pretend that police are equally responsive to different parts of society.” This is a very polite diplomatic way of describing systemic racism. The upcoming trial of Robert ‘Willy’ Picton has put those disappearances again in the public eye. Last month a jury of 12 and two alternates was chosen from 600 potential jurors. A media frenzy ensued, and the real possibility exists for a mistrial if too many of those selected turn out to be unable to stick it out for the year the trial is expected to last. The danger as always is that the sensational nature of the trial will suck up all the energy available for action and the victims and their families will be ignored and forgotten.

Let’s put this all into context. The former head of the Vancouver Police department’s Missing Persons unit, now-retired Sgt. John Dragani, was suspended in April 2005 and has since been charged with one count of possessing child pornography and one count of accessing child pornography. In October of last year an RCMP disciplinary board stopped proceedings against Constable Justin Harris, a police officer accused of sexual misconduct with three teenage prostitutes in Prince George. It stopped them because the incompetent police force failed to investigate complaints against Harris within a one-year time limit, as required by the RCMP Act. Under that Act, a commanding officer has to launch a disciplinary hearing within a year of being notified of an allegation against an officer. Harris, accused of buying sex from teenage prostitutes in Prince George between 1993 and 2001, maintains the allegations are false. He remains suspended with pay while the Mounties in B.C. send their appeal request to the force’s headquarters in Ottawa.
Constable Harris was accused of his misconduct shortly after former Prince George judge David William Ramsay, 63, was sentenced to seven years in jail for sexual attacks on young girls who had appeared before him in court in Prince George between 1992 and 2001. Ramsay was removed from the bench in July 2002, and later resigned. In 2004 he pleaded guilty to multipkle charges including: breach of trust, sexual assault causing bodily harm, and buying sex from minors. His victims were four girls, three of them aboriginal, who ranged in age from 12 to 16. The judge who sentenced Ramsay called his crimes “utterly reprehensible.” Ramsay is now serving his sentence at a prison in Atlantic Canada. He recently became eligible to apply for day parole, but didn’t. He will soon become eligible for full parole.
If these facts do not imply systemic racism I don’t know what does. Barb Mallett, a social worker who helps prostitutes get off the streets, said these kinds of cases make it appear as if there is no justice for sex trade workers who make complaints. “It doesn’t give Prince George a good image. It’s as if things are just brushed under the carpet and not taken seriously,” she said. And Aboriginal leader and lawyer Bill Wilson, who had called for a 25-year sentence for Ramsay, said that the former judge “should never, ever get out of there. He should do 25 years and die there. There’s no redemption.” Annabelle Webb, who speaks for the advocacy group Justice for Girls, agrees with Wilson. “The breach of trust in the crimes he committed was huge, and I think he’s a danger to young women in the community.” Parole officials said if Ramsay didn’t get parole, he will likely leave prison under statutory release in 2009.

No wonder, therefore, that Hedy Fry, Minister for Multiculturalism in the former Liberal government rose in federal parliament as long ago as 2001 to mark anti-racism day, and after referring to hate venues such as Kosovo and Northern Ireland, isolated Prince George, British Columbia, as another example. People were outraged that ethnic cleansing in Kosovo and sectarian bombs and killings in Northern Ireland would be compared to the problems of a sleepy northern town like Prince George just because of a few daytime cross burnings and the seething racial hatred this implies. But Fry’s comments were obviously valid. The mindset that allows an underlying problem of poverty and marginalization to persist in a country as wealthy as Canada is the same that remains silent in the face of the recent revelations that Tony Merchant’s law firm stands to make 40 million dollars for its part in reaching a compensation settlement for victims of Residential School abuse.

Retired Supreme Court Judge Frank Iacobucci, appointed in June 2005 to negotiate a settlement for aboriginal residential school students with the government and the various churches involved, was paid up to $200,000 per month, plus expenses, for his work. The money (2.5 million dollars in total) was for his expertise and the assistance of two junior lawyers in his office, according to documents obtained by CBC News. Another team of lawyers led by Tony Merchant has been promised between $25 million and $40 million under the terms of the settlement for its work. Acccording to Merchant, his firm spent 10 years on cases and had more than 100 lawyers working on them. He was surprised by the amount paid to Iacobucci. The rate is more than the “standard” range Ottawa pays, according to the documents. A lawyer with more than 20 years experience is normally paid between $150 and $200 an hour. And now Justice Iacobucci apparently has questions about the amount of money Tony Merchant is going to get.

So while the legal beagles argue about who is the biggest shyster and recipient of ‘misery money’, an estimated 100,000 aboriginal children traumatized by the system of Indian Residential Schools from 1930 to 1996 (Statistics Canada estimates 80,000 are still alive today) wait to receive a pittance for their suffering. Many suffered physical and sexual abuse while there. For more than a decade, former students pursued lawsuits against Ottawa and churches for damages relating to their experiences. But litigation was slow and only a handful of cases were settled until the former federal Liberal government appointed Iacobucci in 2005 to help reach a compensation package. Part of his job was also to study the creation of a national truth-and-reconciliation forum to give survivors a chance to tell their stories.

In February 2006, the Drum ran a story of its own, “Residential School Survivor Willy Blackwater Speaks Out,” in which Blackwater, the original claimant who pioneered litigation, spoke out against the deal offering any former student a lump sum of $10,000 each, plus $3,000 for each year spent in the schools. As Blackwater put it, “The only ones that benefit from these atrocities are the lawyers, the legal firms.” The revelations about the amount of money being paid to Iacobucci and Merchant only re-affirm the sad fact that White society can always find a way to benefit itself despite the fact that its representatives are at fault in the first place. Merchant will be able to buy himself a fleet of SUV’s.

Issues ranging from land claims and housing shortages to contaminated water remain on agendas as aboriginal leaders meet with government representatives in summit after summit, but the same basic problems continue to plague Aboriginal communities. The housing shortage on reserves across the country is estimated at between 20,000 and 35,000 units. As Phil Fontaine, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations put it, “Canada has a Third World in its front yard and back alleys. That is a national tragedy and an international embarrassment”

The recently released National Film Board documentary film “Finding Dawn” by Christine Welsh is, according to its Director, meant to illustrate the deep historically social and economic factors that contribute to the epidemic of violence against Native women in Canada. The women murdered and missing from the Downtown Eastside and the Highway of Tears since 1974 are only the most obvious examples of this epidemic.

In 2006, more or less 33 years after the first woman disappeared in Northern British Columbia, an Amnesty International report estimated on the basis of logical linkages between various police files that at least 33 women have been murdered or have gone missing in the area traveled by the Highway of Tears. After much delay and denial by the authorities the 2005 Symposium organized to try to breathe life into the investigation and soothe the grieving families of the victims came up with 33 recommendations for focus: 15 on victim prevention, 6 on emergency planning, 6 on family counseling, and 6 on community development.

“It’s a lot more than teaching people about the perils of hitchhiking,” said Lisa Krebs. “It’s about social change. There are reasons they are standing out on the highway.” Yes, it is, and everyone knows the reasons that these young women stand on the highway watching the minivans and SUV’s speed by. They are historical social and economic, the consequences of systematic exploitation and oppression at the hands of government authorities, corporations and lawyers over the years. And the $10,000 offered to each victim of Residential School abuse will not even begin to buy that victim a mini van or an SUV so he or she can join the parade of blissful ignorance on the Highway of Flying Rocks on Vancouver Island. This all has the familiar ring or scratchy sound of a broken record going round and round at 33 and 1/3 RPM’s.