The Scoop on Skid Row

By Morgan O’Neal

Almost four months into the trial of Robert Willie’ Pickton for first degree murder, the focus of the sensational hearing in New Westminster has settled on the six women he is accused of killing after they disappeared from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. As coincidence would have it, the weekend of May 1 deposited me on those same Mean Streets when four packed cruise ships–the first of the year–docked in the Vancouver harbour below Hastings and Main. The number of tourists disembarking was beyond the capacity of private taxis; there were none available. Stranded visitors stood in line for up to two hours before venturing out on their own to get a look at the most beautiful city in Canada. But it is next to impossible to get from where those boats are docked to where beauty is hiding somewhere west of Granville, without wandering through or stumbling into the worst Skid Row in all of North America. I had a chance to observe some of these travellers as they were welcomed as guests to Vancouver by crack dealers leaning in the doorways of boarded up pawn shops and rooming houses.
This rotten core of the Downtown Eastside where once hard-working hard-drinking long-shoreman walked the streets north of Hastings is now a breeding ground for maggots fattening up on the dying meat; this is where the psychopaths come when they feel the urge to exploit human weakness. The life story of the population of this place is the dark legacy of colonialism, residential school abuse and foster home alienation: the deadly plunge into drug addiction and prostitution supported by the skewed legislation in the City of Vancouver that creates a last resort sex trade whose broken bodies are supplied by the impoverished community exploding in the downtown core. These meanest streets in North America serve as a backdrop for the lead story on the local evening television news when voyeuristic camera crews and reporters catch up with a few of the tourists who have at least made it into China town where they are absorbed safely into the smells and sounds of open air fresh produce and spice markets. Still trembling in their boots they are barely able to answer the reporters’ first question. “Will you be coming back to Vancouver again?”

News that about half of Canada’s Aboriginal population now lives in cities and towns would not surprise anyone familiar with the derelict streets of the poorest postal code in Canada. Canada’s fastest growing Aboriginal communities are in the urban centers of Vancouver, Prince George, Edmonton, Calgary, Lethbridge, Regina, Saskatoon, Prince Albert, Winnipeg, Thompson, Thunder Bay and Toronto. In Edmonton, for example, family and friends of missing women recently held a rally to raise awareness in relation to unsolved disappearances there. Organizers of the Stolen Sisters Awareness March staged the event to remind people of the grim realities far too many aboriginal women face, in particular those who live on the streets, are addicted to drugs or work in the sex trade. Like Pickton’s victims these women have disappeared without their families knowing what happened to them. April Eve Wiberg, one of the organizers of the march, said that over the last 20 years, more than 500 aboriginal women in Canada have been murdered or they’ve just disappeared. “I’m hoping to raise awareness,” she said. “I’m hoping by everyone coming out and supporting us that the authorities will take these cases more seriously and treat them equally. “And as an aboriginal community, I don’t think that our ancestors would have put up with this and remained silent, so why should we?”
In Edmonton Connie Benwell hopes that breaking the silence about the root causes of this shameful epidemic will help her find her daughter, 27-year-old Leanne Benwell, who has been missing since March 12. She had been living on the streets for the last five years. “It’s terrifying,” Benwell said. “I have no clue where she is. My worst fear is that she’ll show up dead.” And there is a clear justification for such fear. The Vancouver Province newspaper reported only last month the death by overdose of a young native woman who was instrumental in bringing down David Ramsay, infamous BC provincial court judge from Prince George who pleaded guilty in 2004 and was sentenced to seven years in federal prison for sexual exploitation, violence against underage prostitutes, mostly aboriginal girls, and breach of trust. The young woman was a teenager in the sex trade at the time and cannot be named. She was 22 years old when she died of a drug overdose on April 1, only a few weeks after completing a drug rehabilitation program. Statistical evidence long ago verified the high percentage of aboriginal women haunting the streets and alleys of the Downtown Eastside. A decade ago, Drum writer Sean Devlin began reporting on the missing and murdered women now thought to be among the many victims of the Coquitlam pig farmer Robert ‘Willie’ Picton. At the time it was no secret that seventy percent of the women in the Downtown Eastside were native. Professor of criminology at Simon Fraser University, John Lowman, perhaps Canada’s leading expert on prostitution had already shown that women involved in the sex trade would be 60 to 120 times more likely to be murdered than other Canadian women. Lowman went so far as to accuse the Vancouver police and city politicians of complicity through inaction in the murders and disappearances of these women, describing the situation in the following way: “The police and the politicians actively created the problem they are now trying to fix. The rhetoric of the 80’s and 90’s was: ‘We’ll get rid of the prostitutes. The idea of eliminating prostitution in Vancouver has translated tragically into Really getting rid of prostitutes. We chase them from one area to another. They find themselves in dark streets in defenseless situations. They get into strangers’ cars. There are no eyes there. But there Are men who get off on violence. They see the women’s vulnerability.’”

These women are chased in fact from poverty ridden rural reserves to drug infested inner city dead zones like the Downtown Eastside where psychopaths are waiting to pounce. Lowman suspected a serial killer long before law enforcement made that leap of logic. A 1997 Drum article told the tragic story of Lisa Marie Graveline, whose family had come to Vancouver from a Manitoba reserve and whose mother and father and brother all died from addiction related problems. Entire native families are stuck in this addictive cycle. Lisa Marie’s body was found stuffed into a duffel bag in a Downtown Eastside dumpster. She was known by frontline workers to have used the services of WISH (Women’s Information and Safe House) where 60 % of participants are Native. Program Director in the late 90’s Karen Duddy told the Drum at the time that the overwhelming atmosphere was one of menace. “Our women are very worried about their missing sisters. There is a great sense of fear out there.” That fear has only increased in recent years as in the case of Pilasi Kingfisher who upon arriving at the Bus station on Main and Terminal in Vancouver went missing for two weeks. Who could blame family and friends and indeed the public at large for just assuming that she would never be seen again; that she had become just one more victim of the horror story of life on or adjacent to the Downtown Eastside Thankfully this young native woman finally contacted her family from Saskatchewan where she was reported to have been living for two weeks by her own choice.

Chief Phil Fontaine of The Assembly of First Nations is forced by this scourge to file a human-rights complaint against the federal government in order to begin to put an end to the “systemic discrimination” resulting from the perpetual under-funding of aboriginal child-welfare services. “Our children need action now, so I am announcing today that we are putting governments on notice that a lack of action should be viewed as putting children at risk,” Fontaine said to the International Congress on Ethics in Gatineau, Quebec. The stark truth is that one in 10 aboriginal children in Canada is in foster care, as opposed to one in 200 non-aboriginal children. Child-welfare agencies for First Nations get 22 per cent less money than those that deal with non-aboriginal children. The logic is clear, according to Fontaine. Because child-services agencies lack adequate financing, these agencies are forced to spend what money they do have on taking children away from their parents. The reason 27,000 aboriginal children are in foster homes is the lack of funding and support at every level. “Such systemic discrimination must end,” Fontaine said. Meanwhile, in her first official meeting with British Columbia’s aboriginal leaders, the province’s new representative for Children and Youth, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, pledged to dismantle or at least substantially alter a decrepit piece of federal legislation that is clearly responsible for the staggeringly high number of native children at present in government care. Because it is under federal jurisdiction her statements have relevance for Native communities across the country. But Turpel-Lafond’s criticism of the law may in fact be the first time a provincial official has been so blatant in blaming the bureaucracy for what is indeed a national disgrace. She went so far as to explicitly describe the guilty federal Directive 20.1 as “perverse.” The directive in question stipulates that federal government money will be made available to look after troubled aboriginal kids “only if they are taken away from their families and placed in government care.” This is the language of kidnap and ransom.

In a speech to aboriginal leaders, chiefs, councilors and child-welfare advocates at a recent First Nations Summit in North Vancouver, Turpel-Lafond stated clearly that there were few more wrong-headed pieces of bureaucratic bungling in the history of relations between the government and First Nations. “Very clearly federal funding for child welfare is based on a perverse performance measure, which is that funds are based on taking kids into (government) care, which only encourages them to take more kids into care.” Again, in any other language these stipulations would be denounced as bounty hunting, a price on the head of every native kid. Needless to say, the new B.C. Rep. for Children and Youth was applauded for her frankness and received in general a very warm reception from the Native leaders in attendance. In offering an alternative to the perversity of the present situation, Turpel-Lafond emphasized that native kids and their communities would obviously be better served “by strengthening their family and cultural ties” in order to help families deal with such issues as addiction and domestic violence and all the other negative effects that characterize the national scourge of the “residential school syndrome.”

There are at present approximately 9,500 children in the care of the B.C. government, and more than half of these are of aboriginal ancestry. Compare this number to the fact that First Nations people make up less than four percent of the provincial population. And just to make certain you get the picture, check out the disproportionate number of aboriginal adults who are incarcerated in the penal institutions of the province. The path trodden by native prison inmates doubtless begins in the horrid childhoods spent in residential schools sanctioned by malevolent government policy. The provincial government, for its part, has recently agreed with First Nations to begin a gradual transfer of the care of native children to aboriginal agencies and authorities. These changes are necessary and welcome, but children no matter where they come from will never be truly safe and secure without the wholesale admission of guilt by the colonial institutions that started the problems in the first place. The cultural genocide that was historically perpetrated against the First Nations of this continent continues to this day in myriad more subtle forms to thwart the efforts of Aboriginal communities to rebuild their dignity. There is one simple phrase that must remain in the language of the struggle for First Nations self-determination. Systemic racism is at the bottom of each and every obstacle facing native communities

The life stories of the women missing from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside in the days, weeks and months leading up to their disappearances are carbon copies of those going missing now in Winnipeg and Edmonton. The six women Robert Pickton is accused of murdering had already dropped out of sight some time before Picton came along. They disappeared because of a lack of services designed to address the problems caused by chronic poverty and dysfunction, and in the case of Native women esepcially, vicious cycles of addiction stemming from displacement and emotional breakdown. In the days before their files were closed, the last people to have contact with these women were usually doctors, pharmacists, police officers and community support workers. That is to say the files on these women were shut down some time before they died because there was no money available to keep them alive. Sereena Abotsway, Marnie Frey, Andrea Joesbury, Georgina Papin, Mona Wilson and Brenda Wolfe are all tragic examples of a system proven miserably inadequate to the task of rescuing members of a community at risk. These women were homeless and hungry and some were trying to protect children of their own. They were all known to the police and in many cases had recently reported having been assaulted both sexually and physically by predatory men in the Downtown East-side. In all six cases Medical Services Plan and Pharmanet records indicate that they were entirely dependent upon prescription drugs to function at the most miserable level of existence. The system had a responsibility to get them off the street and into treatment of some kind, before Robert Pickton crawled out from under his rock and butchered them.