By Kari Neumeyer
Sunday, January 25, 2004
The arrest of a man accused of murdering 22 women from Vancouver--most of them prostitutes--sparked debate over a 1985 Canadian law that some say drives sex workers underground and makes them easy targets for criminals.
VANCOUVER, B.C. (WOMENSENEWS)--Five and a half years after Maggie de Vries' sister Sarah disappeared, prosecutors finally attributed her slaying to a man accused of committing the most serial killings in Canada's history.
Like many of the other victims, Sarah was a prostitute in downtown Vancouver's eastside neighborhood. De Vries thinks her sister's occupation explains why it took so long for officials to explain her disappearance. She also thinks it explains why Sarah is dead.
Prostitutes are easy targets for serial killers, de Vries says, because Canadian laws against solicitation force the otherwise legal sex trade into darkness.
Although it is legal to buy and sell sex in Canada, the government passed a law in 1985 that attempted to curb street prostitution. It prohibited communication in public for the purposes of prostitution.
The law is hypocritical, says John Lowman, a professor of Criminology at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, who has been studying Canadian prostitution law for 25 years. He argues that the communication law made it impossible to prostitute publicly without breaking the law, so sex workers had to move into dark corners. He adds that 20 years of public talk about "getting rid of prostitutes" created a society where predatory, misogynistic men could murder women and get away with it.
The only way to keep women like her sister safe is to change the law, de Vries says. "People in Canada need to be more open-minded about sex work. It's very dangerous. Communication is illegal, so you have to do it where no one can see you."
As a result of the murders in her district, Libby Davies, federal member of Parliament for Vancouver East, advocated changing the law to make sex work safer. Last year, parliamentarians in the human rights committee agreed to review prostitution law and recommend changes. They have been meeting since October.
England has similar prostitution laws to Canada's, but there a sex worker can work legally out of an apartment. In recent years, countries such as New Zealand and the Netherlands have decriminalized prostitution. Sweden went in the other direction, making it illegal to buy sex, but decriminalizing the sale, a strategy Lowman calls "legalized entrapment."
Robert William Pickton is charged with killing 22 women, most of them drug addicts, such as de Vries' sister. The alleged killings occurred between 1996 and 2001 on his pig farm 20 miles to the east, in Port Coquitlam.
He is scheduled to appear again in court next June, when a court date could be set. His trial is not expected to begin for several months after that.
De Vries, a children's book editor and author, last heard from her sister in an
e-mail in March 1998. Although she had visited Sarah in a rented house in downtown Vancouver, de Vries says, she didn't really get to know the area or her sister until after she was gone. An adopted child of mixed race, Sarah de Vries began running away as a teen, experimenting with drugs, stealing and spending time in downtown Vancouver. The downward spiral was painful for her family to watch, but they made an effort to stay in touch with Sarah. While working the streets, Sarah had two babies born addicted to drugs. Her mother went to the hospital for both births and has cared for the now healthy children, aged 13 and 7, their whole lives.
In an effort to locate her sister, Maggie de Vries discovered in Vancouver's Skid Row a community full of love, loyalty and humanity. Even though her sister was addicted to drugs and may have felt trapped in the sex trade, ultimately she had the choice and the right to be there, says de Vries.
De Vries is now on the board of the nonprofit advocacy group Prostitution Alternatives Counselling and Education, which is run by former sex workers. The group treats prostitutes with respect, de Vries says, and doesn't assume that they want to stop.
After her sister's DNA was discovered on Pickton's farm, de Vries wrote a book, "Missing Sarah," based in large part on Sarah's journals, telling the story of her childhood, disappearance and ensuing investigation.
"I'm hoping my book will help people see the women as fully dimensional, whose lives have value in the moment," she said. The Canada Council for the Arts nominated the book in the nonfiction category for the 2003 Governor General's Literary Award.
Although at least 60 women disappeared from the destitute downtown eastside between 1978 and 2001, the investigation got a slow start.
In 1999, the then-mayor of Vancouver, Philip Owen, offered a $100,000 reward for information about a series of garage robberies in an upscale neighborhood. De Vries was outraged such a high amount was offered about property crimes in which nobody was hurt. At the time, no reward money was offered and little attention was given to the missing prostitutes.
Encouraged by Detective Lori Shenher of the Vancouver Police Department, de Vries and other victims' relatives formed a delegation that persuaded police to offer a $100,000 reward for information about the missing women. Some informants have made claims for the reward, but it won't be issued until after the case is closed.
The neglected search didn't kick into gear until April 2001 when the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Vancouver Police Department--after years of pressure from de Vries and other victims' relatives--formed a Joint Missing Women Task Force to oversee the investigation.
In February 2002, Pickton was arrested and the farm became the focus of a 21-month investigation.
Last fall, Women's eNews visited the farm, which is surrounded by a suburban community of nearly identical single-family houses. A pre-school, elementary and secondary school all are within walking distance. Residents jogged and pushed strollers and seemed to have adjusted to the scene at the nearby 14-acre farm. By then, as part of the $50 million investigation, the buildings on the farm had been razed and yellow crime-scene tape encircled the property.
About 50 anthropology specialists, some of them young female students, methodically searched the farm, using large cranes and excavators, screeners and conveyor belts to dig up and examine the soil on the property, divided, according to the Web site of the Joint Missing Women Task Force, into 216, 20-by-20-feet grids.
When the physical search ended in November, authorities assured victims' families that no stone was left unturned on the farm. Several forensic specialists and handlers will spend the next year analyzing thousands of DNA samples unearthed there.
As a result of the analysis, another victim was identified. On Jan. 15, investigators told aboriginal leader Ernie Crey that remains discovered on the farm belonged to his sister Dawn, missing for three years.
Kari Neumeyer is a journalist based in the Pacific Northwest.
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