Missing women: unequal lives in Canada

Missing and murdered Aboriginal women and their families in Canada have been let down by a structural complacency in finding those responsible for their deaths. 

‘There is no serial killer.’

With this declaration in the late 90s Vancouver Police unwittingly created a blind for a pig farmer from outside the city, Robert William Pickton, to continue hunting women. Women - mostly aboriginal women - had been disappearing from the impoverished and crime-ridden Downtown Eastside of Vancouver for almost 10 years at that point. Many of the missing were known to have struggled with substance abuse, and in some cases to have worked in prostitution, but there was still a sense of community in the Downtown Eastside, and through community centres, shelters, clinics, and the street, many women had been warned to stay away from a man in a grey van who might ask to take them to Port Coquitlam. Amid a creeping sense of unease among local women regarding their neighbours and friends who had disappeared, and with rumours of a possible serial killer, police seemed eager to check any speculation of a common factor in the open case files—any common factor that is, beyond the at-risk lifestyles led by many of the women who were missing. It seemed these women had simply, tragically, succumbed to themselves.

Four years after a police informant first told the Vancouver Police Department that Robert Pickton was murdering prostitutes on his Port Coquitlam pig farm, a couple of junior police officers made their way to his property to investigate claims that he was in possession of illegal firearms. There they found blood-stained women’s clothing and the ID of several prostitutes known to be missing from the Downtown Eastside. The resulting search found both human remains and the DNA of some 33 women: Pickton would later brag in jail to an undercover policeman that he had in fact murdered 49 times. Charged with the murder of 27 women, the Crown chose only to pursue the six strongest counts. Convicted in 2007 and with all appeals having failed, Robert William Pickton will live out his days in prison.

Inevitably, much soul searching has followed from the horror felt in response to the revelation of Pickton’s crimes. A management review of the investigation into missing women was conducted by the Vancouver Police Department; and on October 31, 2012 the final report of British Columbia’s Missing Women Commission of Inquiry, initiated after Pickton’s final appeal was denied in 2010, is due to be submitted to the Attorney General.

As the government reports continue to pile up, and the trail of blame grows longer with every year, there is one consideration that stares defiantly in the face of all of the public apologies and due process: dozens of Aboriginal women are still disappearing in British Columbia.

Indeed it is not just in British Columbia that Aboriginal women are going missing and being found murdered at an alarming rate: in July of 2012 a Saskatchewan Aboriginal group joined the federal New Democrats and a group of Aboriginal chiefs from Manitoba in calling for a federal inquiry into their missing and murdered women,  and to address the fact that First Nations women are at a higher risk of violence than any other demographic in Canada.

British Columbia though, bears an especially heavy burden in all this. According to the native Women's Association of Canada, between 1980 and 2010, 60 Aboriginal women disappeared and 100 were murdered in the province. After the Lower Mainland area including Vancouver, the Northwest has been particularly hard hit. 

This is where you’ll find Highway 16, a route that has become known as the Highway of Tears. Its 800 kilometres stretches from Prince George to Prince Rupert, and the disappearances that have marked it in infamy date back as far as the 1960s.

Project E-Pana, an investigation by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police into possible similarities between unsolved disappearances and murders of women in the BC interior established a dossier of 18 women whose disappearances or murders could be linked, 10 of whom are Aboriginal women. One of the qualifications the unsolved cases had to meet to be eligible for consideration in the Project E-Pana file was that the victim was leading a  high-risk lifestyle. Though the term ‘high-risk’ quickly brings to mind substance abuse and prostitution, in a number of the cases the only ‘high-risk’ activity the victim was engaged in was hitchhiking—a behavior that was considered far less dangerous in the 1970s, the period from which several of the E-Pana cases date. Furthermore, in at least one instance where the victim has been deemed to have led a high-risk lifestyle because she was hitchhiking, the very fact that she ever hitchhiked stands in dispute. 

Indeed, even the name ‘Highway of Tears’ no longer refers strictly to cases stemming from Highway 16, but rather to multiple unsolved cases of murdered or missing women originating in British Columbia’s interior. Given the elusive and often contested parameters determining the cases that the RCMP has allocated to Project E-Pana, it is not surprising that, by contrast, Inuit leaders from the region around Highway 16 are asserting that the number of related cases could be as high as 43.

On September 24th of this year the Royal Canadian Mounted Police held a press conference to announce that Project E-Pana had established a link between a man who died in an American prison in 2006, there on a conviction of kidnapping, assault, and attempted rape and the Highway of Tears murders. It was said that the families of those who have lost women along the Highway of Tears had been notified that an announcement was about to be made that could have implications on the unsolved disappearances of their loved ones. And it was a development: it has been determined that Bobby Jack Fowler’s DNA was present on the body of Colleen MacMillen, a young woman found murdered in 1974, and police are confident that Fowler may be linked to the deaths of at least 2 other young white women murdered in BC’s interior in the 1970s. Despite these developments, none of the cases in which Fowler’s involvement is suspected originate along Highway 16—the area that has been hardest hit by this phenomenon. Nor does Fowler seem to have been targeting Aboriginal women, a population vastly over-represented as victims of these crimes.  Although the RCMP have never subscribed to a theory of a single killer, the feeling remains that this densely-forested, sparsely-populated area has become a refuge for at least one person who is targeting the area’s Aboriginal women. With the most recent disappearance from Highway 16 being in 2011, it is clear that women along this road continue to be at risk.

Vicki Hill is an Aboriginal woman who lost her mother along Highway 16 in 1978. Only 6 months old at the time, she has had her entire life to wonder what happened between her mother’s disappearance on March 26th of that year, and the point, three days later, when her naked body was found 30 km away from Prince Rupert in the bush. The social infrastructure that should have got to the bottom of the death of this young mother only left more questions: her death certificate gave contradictory causes of both pneumonia and homicide. There was no investigation, and her mother was buried in the local cemetery with no marker.

As this story indicates, the disappearances and even confirmed deaths of many of these women have not been treated with anything resembling the solemnity or commitment to justice that any of us would expect for our own loved ones. Many people from the area feel that it was only when a young Caucasian tree planter, Nicole Hoar, disappeared while hitchhiking along Highway 16 in 2002, that the media and police began paying any attention to the fact that women were vanishing along this road.

No one knows how many of the outstanding cases are linked, or if police should be looking for a serial killer, or possibly multiple serial killers. What is clear is that women and their communities are being let down by a system that seems unable to commit itself to the problem. The dense wilderness of mountains and valleys that stretch out around Highway 16 has often been held up as an excuse for how few women have been located after going missing in this area. Yet a wilderness—however great or wild—is not exactly alien terrain in Canada. This is the reality of the country, and as an institution that has pledged itself to protecting Canadians since the 1800s—when there was far more wilderness to contend with and far less technology to navigate it—the RCMP must avail itself of the resources available for investigating missing persons regardless of the uncompromising geography. In a report prepared specially for the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry written by Linda Locke, Q.C., titled ‘Standing Together and Moving Forward, The Northwest Consultations’ one recommendation was the establishment of a network of ‘First Responders’. Such networks would be comprised of local Aboriginal people, hunters, trappers, fishermen, and firemen who would be trained to work in conjunction with local search and rescue teams to ensure the swiftest, most comprehensive response would be immediately available in the event of a reported missing person. It was also suggested that highway maintenance crews be incorporated into a preventive scheme to inform the RCMP of anything suspicious observed along the road. While the geography is formidable, it cannot be allowed to become a refuge for predators, and the involvement of community members who know it best would seem to be both a clever and easily-realized strategy.

Tragically, if the geography is uncooperative, the behavior of officials has—as experienced by Vicki Hill—been at times staggering in its coolness and impassivity.

In another report published this year for the Missing Women inquiry,  ‘Voices of the Families—Recommendations of the Families of the Missing and Murdered Women’, many testified that the report of their missing loved one had not received any attention from police: One still unsolved disappearance took eight years’ perseverance by the family in three jurisdictions before the police would take the report.’ For 8 years a family struggled simply to have police file a report on their loved one—let alone to have it investigated. The standard waiting time is 24 hours.

When police and officials have been involved, it has often been disastrously mishandled. Linda Locke’s report records two separate instances in which women who were out playing bingo were tracked down by police and confronted on the spot with the news that their daughters had been murdered. Another woman pushing for investigation into the disappearance of her mother had her efforts dismissed by a native liaison officer on the grounds that her mother did not fit the profile of most missing Aboriginal women, and was by now probably ‘fish food.’

Such responses from police have done nothing to counteract the lasting pain and mistrust felt by many older members of First Nations communities—people who still remember the role the RCMP played in forcibly removing them from their families and taking them to residential schools. The legacy of the residential schools (which were largely church-run) is a terrible one, and well-known throughout Canada. Children were taken away from their families, and punished for speaking their Aboriginal language or trying to maintain the culture of their communities at home. Physical and sexual abuse were common, and the RCMP—who take care of the policing of rural communities in Canada—enforced attendance at these schools, finding and returning runaways to the institutions.

Ms Locke visited numerous communities along the Highway of Tears to investigate the impact this phenomenon is having on these communities and to give a voice to the families of women missing along the Highway of Tears in the inquiry being held hundreds of kilometres south in Vancouver.  Among the issues that community members wanted acknowledged were the fact that many of the women who have gone missing along the Highway of Tears were between the ages of 14 and 24, and—in contrast to so many of Robert Pickton’s victims—few had any known vulnerabilities relating to substance abuse or prostitution. The very fact that participants in these forums felt compelled to draw attention to how well-adjusted were their lost loved ones is evidence of their desperation to overcome the prejudice and attendant neglect shown towards Aboriginal women who are victims of abuse. In their appeal to the government and the outside world to recognize that these women were in no way responsible for their fates, the prejudicial attitudes Canadians have shown towards Aboriginal communities and to people with addiction problems are set in relief. The fact that a woman went missing, or was in fact murdered did not inspire our sympathy, and so the families come to these symposiums to tell us about their humanity; to illuminate their story as it happened before they were lost, in hope that we might care about what happened next.

Millie Percival was one such witness. Speaking at one of the Northeast Consultations about her best friend, Rebecca Guno, Ms. Percival described a woman with a determination to make the best of any situation, and a love of life that carried her through painful experiences at a residential school; having to give up a child born to her while still a teenager, and then the crib death of another baby a couple of years later. Indeed Ms. Percival said this spirit was apparent even after Ms. Guno had begun to abuse drugs and prostitute herself to support her child.  Ms. Percival described in heartbreaking detail the effect that Millie’s 1983 disappearance from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside had on her family—especially her father, who was ill and had always to have an oxygen tank with him, but who travelled to Vancouver all the same in hopes of finding his daughter:

‘He came to see us, he told me about how big Vancouver is, and how he cried walking the streets day after day, not knowing where he was going or who to talk to.  He told me that he wanted to go back and keep looking, but he was so tired and Vancouver was just hopelessly big, like she just got swallowed up.  I pictured him pulling his oxygen tank along the streets; he said that people didn’t even care about him and maybe they thought he was just a bum who didn’t care about anything.’

It is time for Canada to come to the aid of the missing and murdered Aboriginal women and their families, and to demand a more organized, determined search for answers in these unsolved cases. Inquiries and investigations into past failures are important, but they are shallow exercises in cheque-writing if they are not accompanied by the introduction of a sense of urgency that has been sorely lacking in the search for the  person or people responsible for the loss of so many of these women. Without this change in attitude we must face the possibility that we are the bums who don’t care about anything.

Read other articles in the series, 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence 2012.

About the author

Elizabeth Grant is an artist and freelance writer who recently completed the Masters of Letters in Fine Art Practice at the Glasgow School of Art.

She was a finalist for the RBC Canadian Painting Competition, and has been supported by the Canada Council for the Arts, and the Elizabeth Greenshields Foundation.

Her work can be seen here.