Ending violence: it takes more than a report.
December 17th is the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, sometimes called “Red Umbrella Day.” It is intended to draw attention to the hatred and violence that sex workers experience, the attitudes that enable the violence, and the way that criminalization institutionalizes that prejudice in ways that isolate and make sex workers vulnerable, rather than providing any kind of protection.
This year, it is also the day that the 1,448-page report was released from the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry into the failures in the investigation of Robert Pickton, which resulted in investigations into the pig farmer being abandoned, charges for an assault dropped in 1997. Following that, 19 or more disappearances of women took place, before Pickton was finally arrested and charged in 2002. Pickton later claimed to have killed 49 women; DNA found on his farm linked him to at least 33 deaths.
It’s an inquiry that has been fraught with issues, with non-profit groups representing the women and community issues involved being singled out to shoulder their own expenses, a barrier which prevented some from speaking at all. Most of them boycotted the proceedings even though they had lobbied to have the inquiry in the first place. Key witnesses were requested and declined by the inquiry, sometimes without explanation. A lawyer for 25 of the families stated that the inquiry was rushing testimonies and limiting cross-examination of Vancouver Police Department (VPD) witnesses.
Last August, an independent report was released by a group appointed to represent the affected communities of Vancouver’s downtown east side (DTES). That report, “Wouldn’t Piss On Them If They Were On Fire:” How Discrimination Against Sex Workers, Drug Users And Aboriginal Women Enabled A Serial Killer, detailed how the VPD displayed indifference and open disrespect toward sex workers and Aboriginal women.
The VPD & RCMP investigations into the missing women was plagued by indifference, underfunding, leads that were not followed up on, at least 4 testimonies identifying Pickton that were ignored, and endless moments of disrespect and spite expressed toward the victims. A testimony from one of the former investigators illuminated how underfunded and undersupported the investigation was, and that even internally, it appeared to be a sham:
“There was no real plan to find these women,” she wrote, in one of the few passages that were read into the inquiry record last month. “I see now that I was merely a figurehead, a sacrificial lamb thrown into an investigation the VPD management was convinced would never amount to anything and would never grow into the tragedy it has become. An investigation they could care less about.”
Whatever its shortcomings may be, the report released today does acknowledge that “The missing and murdered women were forsaken by society at large and then again by the police. The pattern of predatory violence was clear and should have been met with a swift and severe response by accountable and professional institutions, but it was not…”
How far it will encourage the relevant institutions to make clear and significant changes to the way that Aboriginal women and sex workers are regarded remains to be seen. At a glance, there’s some deflection from the attitudes and comments made by law enforcement officials to “public indifference,”and that’s always been a barrier to change: society blames the system, the system blames society, and amid all the finger-pointing, nobody does the serious introspection needed to question the attitudes and beliefs that provide the means to rationalize the prejudices at the heart of pervasive problems.
But what I’ve read so far might not be representative of the whole. Stay tuned.