Victoria’s Streets: Behind the Lights

by Myles Zacharias

When a D.N.A. link was made between Robert (Willie) Pickton’s farm and the disappearance of a Victoria First Nations girl, Nancy Clark, it raised awareness about several unsolved murders and missing women in B.C.’s capital city and all over Vancouver Island.

The long list of missing or murdered females on Vancouver Island, along with their individual grisly tales of murder and mystery were first revealed to me by Rose Henry, Snuneymuxw First Nation, in a coffee shop in downtown Victoria. She had to speak loudly over the small crowd of local Victoria activists and artists who sang songs of hope and rapped words condemning the police and society at large of negligence and apathy. Rose and the crowd were there getting ready to set into motion the Walk For Justice, a walk across Canada beginning June 19, 2008, at Mile Zero in Victoria B.C. and scheduled to end Sept 13, 2008, in Ottawa at the steps of Parliament Hill. Rose estimated that the percentage of missing or murdered aboriginal females at the heart of the Walk For Justice is at least 80%. A similar majority of them, like Nancy Clark, trade in sex to various degrees. Michaelle Jean, Canada’s first black Governor General, will meet the walkers in September at Parliament Hill and show them inside for celebrations and acknowledgement.

Rose was excited and fired up. The marginalized group of women that she and others walk for are, in her words, “not asking for respect.” Nor are they trying, she continued, to “argue that they deserve respect”. These things are obvious, and for Rose clearly ignored. So these Women of Canada (and the men standing with them) — be they First Nation, White, Asian, Black, and so on, prostitute or educator, family or friend of a missing loved one — will be “Demanding That Respect” all the way across the continent. The reverberation of Rose’s beat was powerful, and she had to politely remind me to write down what she was saying.

First Nations women are in need of recognition and assistance in novel forms. This need has been underlined by the numerous conditions leading to the existence of mass killing phenomena like Robert Pickton and The Highway of Tears. Both situations have victims that are disproportionately First Nation females. Along the Highway of Tears many of the women are hitchhiking to Vancouver in search of things unavailable on reserves (medical care, money, water, anonymity in a world that makes them feel ashamed). Yet, while the Pickton case is now infamously the longest forensic investigation in criminal history, and the sheer numbers of women he is accused of slaughtering is indeed staggering, the targeting of marginalized women for violent crimes is hardly new. The issues of power and control involved in both hiring sex and the act of murder have been well documented. Now retired Victoria Sgt Don Bland said in a Times Colonist interview in 2001, in reference to the unsolved murders in Victoria and the issue of prostitute killings: “There’s a lot of people who start calling them every name in the book and start smacking them around. It starts to feel good, then the girl is killed.”

During interviews of five First Nations women working the streets in Victoria, the standard first response to the question of safety is that they feel generally quite safe because the community is small and they are able to “protect themselves”. But as interviews progress one learns that feeling “safe” is a relative idea. Being beat up and treated with physical aggressiveness on occasion are some of the things that simply happen in the sex trade noted three of them, and these truths slipped in throughout the conversations. Worst of all says Nadine, a First Nations woman, is the feeling like a second rate citizen, a “reused newspaper”, because of the genes she was born with, and the manipulation she encounters from customers knowing she is desperate for money and chemicals. Nadine’s is close to her daughter, whom she mentioned on several occasions, and when her daughter went missing three months ago this desperate mother knew well the police reaction to someone like her calling. As a result Nadine waited two days before calling the police. When she finally did the police said contradictory things. The first, much to Nadine’s incredible frustration was, “why didn’t you call yesterday?” and the second, according to Nadine, was that the police couldn’t do anything for her because, they said, they had a reputation to uphold.

On Vancouver Island the list of missing and murdered First Nations women is long and the details are grisly. Note the date clusters.

Nancy Greek, 25, disappeared Aug 23, 1991. Her DNA was found on Robert Pickton’s farm, but he has not been convicted of her murder.

Melissa Maureen Nicholson was 17 when her naked and bruised body was found June 11, 1991 in bushes near Shawnigan Lake.

Kimberley Gallup, 17, was strangled in a hotel room at the Colony Motor Inn on Nov. 21, 1990.

Cheri Lynn Smith, was 18 and her partially decomposed body was found Sept. 9, 1990 in underbrush near Munns Road in Saanich

Chantall Venne was 21 and found strangled with the belt of her coat and her hands bound. She was reportedly tortured, sexually assaulted, and her partly clad body dumped in an industrial area on Feb. 25, 1986.

Rose Henry, who knows more than any police task force or space satellite about what is happening on Vancouver Island streets everyday to Native women, wanted to note that there is a rumor about “a farm” somewhere on the Island. It is a rumor, and rumors are of course unreliable, but the question is will the Victoria Police call it a “lead” and act on it? The reluctance of the Vancouver Police Department to investigate the piling numbers of missing women before Robert Pickton’s arrest was a learning lesson to Canadian police forces. It was, in fact, the same for many Canadians that glance over “another hooker missing” reports without making the connection that this missing woman may well lead to a man or to men, and that man or men to a violent disposition that festers in and thrives on the neglected communities of this nation.

But for now, here in Victoria on the corner of Broughton and Gordon streets — where Nancy Clark was last seen alive — the Saturday night crowd moves on. If one looks up from these chatting strollers, directly across the street behind a parking lot on Broughton Street, is a large brightly lit Hudson’s Bay Company sign shining down onto this street corner from the bulky side of a towering building. There are bright Christmas style lights outlining the painted concrete figure, and sitting here one wonders what Nancy Greek was thinking when she was here last, and how she managed to go uncharacteristically missing from this spot the day before her daughters birthday.