The 16th Annual Women’s Memorial March

By Morgan O’Neal

On Wednesday, February 14, the 16th Annual Women’s Memorial March, honoring and remembering the lives of the 29 murdered women and the 36 women still missing from the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, drew hundreds of supporters to the Carnegie Community Center at the corner of Main and Hastings. Under the banner “Their Spirits Live Within Us” the event is yearly organized “by Women and led by Women because Women, especially Aboriginal Women, face physical, mental, emotional and spiritual violence on a daily basis.” This event has become extremely important to the grieving families of the many victims because it offers individuals a chance to express not only their sadness at the deaths or disappearances of loved ones, but also because it has become a forum for expressing frustration about the manner in which the authorities responded to the initial problem.

These frustrations take at least two different forms; the first is the ineffectiveness of the initial investigation and the fact that it took the police so long to get their act together. The second and no less serious problem is the fact that the word on the street is that id Pickton is guilty of these horrendous crimes he certainly did not act alone. The consequences of ignoring this grassroots information is that persons involved in the disappearances and murders on the Downtown Eastside continue to walk free and present a threat to other women in the area. Members of the victims’ families and people who knew and worked with some of the murdered women have long been aware that there are other people involved in this heinous crime.

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The Memorial March took place as the trial of Robert ‘Willy’ Picton went into its second month in a New Westminster Courthouse. The B.C. Supreme Court jury has already seen more than 20 hours of video filmed secretly after Pickton’s arrest. A profile of the man accused of the worst serial murder in Canadian history is beginning to emerge in the testimony of investigators involved in the case. But it was also revealed that three other people besides Pickton were arrested in connection with the murders of Vancouver’s missing women, the lead investigator in the case testified Monday. None were charged with any of the murders.

The information came out at the start of the second week of Pickton’s first-degree murder trial for the deaths of six women in New Westminster, B.C., during defence lawyer Peter Ritchie’s cross-examination of Insp. Don Adam, the RCMP officer in charge of the investigation. Lynn Ellingsen and Dinah Taylor were arrested more than a week before Pickton was arrested in February 2002, Adam said. But he said Ellingsen’s connection was “resolved” after an interview with police. Adam told the court there was an extensive and thorough investigation into Taylor and Pat Casanova, who was arrested almost a year later in January 2003.

The jury has viewed the RCMP’s videotaped interrogation of Pickton, in which Casanova is described as Pickton’s friend and police allege Ellingsen was blackmailing Pickton. The jury has heard Ellingsen will testify against Pickton. Casanova will also testify during the trial. .Criminal lawyer Donna Turko told CBC News that Pickton’s defence lawyer will want to keep asking questions about other possible suspects in this case. “It’s absolutely essential for the defence, at the earliest time possible, to put in front of the jury the possibility that other persons may be responsible for this crime,” Turko said Monday. “I think the public and everyone has been wondering, was Mr. Pickton capable of these murders? Was he assisted by somebody, or was he actually an accessory after the fact?”

Earlier in his testimony, Adam told the murder trial that Pickton was a person of interest in the disappearance of women from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, and plans were underway to search his suburban pig farm before his arrest five years ago. He said police were preparing to get a search warrant when Pickton was arrested and released on an unrelated firearms charge. Two weeks later, Pickton was arrested again and charged with the alleged murders of two missing women. He was eventually charged with 26 counts of first-degree murder. In the current trial, which began Jan. 22 in B.C. Supreme Court, he is being tried for six counts of first-degree murder.

Adam also told the jury that the investigation is not over, and, in fact, has become even larger because evidence turned up in this case has led police to other unsolved homicides. “This is the largest, most expensive search that has been done in Canadian policing.” Adam said more than 400,000 swabs of DNA were taken as evidence by the team of investigators. He also said bulldozers were called in to dig up the property, and 383,000 cubic yards (292,825 cubic metres) of soil were sifted for human remains.He also noted that the investigation used up the entire supply of white contamination suits in Canada.

In speeches leading up to the march, more than one speaker made reference to the fact that Pickton did not act alone. And speaker after speaker referred to the huge outpouring of emotional and financial support from all quarters in response to the recent devastation of Stanley Park by monster winds. Politicians from all levels of government flocked to the park in order to be photographed among the toppled trees, and pledge fund to begin cleaning up the mess and rebuilding. Where were these representatives of government when the Memorial March was held? Not one was in attendance. Sam Sullivan wheeled himself around the park a number of times, but he never showed up at the Carnegie Center. It is wheelchair accessible, after all. Compare this civic outcry for the fate of the urban forest to the pathetic lack of response to the initial reports of the women going missing in the Downtown Eastside.

In any case the hundreds of supporters of the victims and their families gathered at Carnegie center listened to emotional speakers representing various organizations and agencies involved in helping the families of both the victims of the Downtown Eastside and the Highway of Tears. As the gathering drew to a close, Assembly of First Nations Chief, Phil Fontaine arrived to offer his support and to walk with the crowd assembled. Also, the First Nations Women Chiefs and Councillors, who had been meeting at a forum in Vancouver since February 12 to express their “overwhelming concern and frustration with the current situation facing First Nations communities,” distributed copies of the Consensus Statement produced at their meeting.

When the speeches were completed, the march itself began more or less right on time. People grabbed their umbrellas and left the building to assemble in the intersection of Main and Hastings, and for a moment or two it was difficult to distinguish between the dealers of prescription drugs on the street corner and the marchers milling on the outskirts of the crowd. The police had already arrived to facilitate the rally and to direct downtown traffic. The banners were unfurled and the marchers moved west down Hastings under as many umbrellas as could be mustered, unconcerned with the inclement weather, for all minds were as one even in the pouring rain. The reason they were walking; to remember the women who were dead and missing.