VANCOUVER EASTSIDE MISSING WOMEN
A disturbing moral judgment on who’s equal
The Vancouver Sun
Friday, August 30,2002
VICTORIA - If you want to understand how it could have happened, how more than 50 women could have disappeared from Vancouver's streets without denting our complacency, just dig out last week's newspapers.
In print and on the radio talk shows, people lashed out at a Downtown Eastside group that wanted movie companies to pay for disrupting life on the streets in our poorest neighbourhoods. The Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users argued that Eastside residents, along with sex trade workers and panhandlers, should get the same compensation that others receive when a film crew rolls into their neighbourhood.
People were outraged. And the underlying message came through loud and clear: Prostitutes and street bums and the homeless and the poor deserve no such consideration. They are less than the rest of us, unworthy. They don't have the same rights, and a lot of gall for thinking that they do.
Certainly, people have the right to disagree strongly with the proposal. A panhandler who has to move down the block for a couple of days is going to have a hard time quantifying damages.
But what I mostly heard were arguments that were ultimately based on a simple moral judgment: That some people have fewer rights than others. People who had broken no law -- neither panhandling nor prostitution are illegal -- were routinely characterized as criminals by talk-show callers. What could the poor be thinking, those losers, expecting compensation like real citizens?
I don't think I'm overstating the case. The letter from the east side group to 30 movie companies summed up its main argument in one sentence: "While you recognize disruption through financial compensation for residents, workers and homeowners in other neighbourhoods, you unfortunately neglect to in ours."
There were lots of other demands, some unreasonable. But the main point -- treat us as you would treat people who live and work in a nicer neighbourhood, in "nicer" professions -- would be neither shocking nor offensive if there really was such a thing as equality.
Coincidentally, another news item last week underlined the divide. A University of Victoria study on the health of workers in three service sectors -- restaurant servers, hairstylists and sex trade workers -- came under immediate attack for daring to link the sex trade and any other "legitimate" profession.
The study, funded by the Canadian Institute of Health Research, will look at the health issues of the three groups, which have in common low pay, little autonomy and the stress of needing to keep customers happy. Industry officials quickly protested on behalf of servers and hairdressers; newspapers harrumphed at the "casual insult of lumping hard-working, law-abiding waitresses and hairstylists in with "sex workers." Surely those scarlet women are not like us.
No doubt the sex trade differs from cutting hair, particularly in the level of danger involved. But managing cranky customers can be difficult in a bar, a hotel room, or a hair salon. And the only reason to oppose such a study is a misguided belief that sex-trade workers are lesser creatures.
Which leads back to the missing women. Vancouver Police Chief Jamie Graham was ensnared last week in a controversy over whether a public inquiry should be held into the disappearance of so many women over the years. (He now says he supports an inquiry once criminal charges are concluded.)
There have been serious questions about how police responded and whether they followed up on important leads, or even took the investigations seriously. An inquiry is needed.
But police attitudes aren't the only ones needing scrutiny. If the public seemingly can't tolerate the concept that the poor -- let alone sex-trade workers -- are people just like us, is it surprising that disappearances could go not just unlamented, but uninvestigated?
Police surely can't be blamed for reflecting the lack of interest, or worse, that so many of us demonstrated last week. I'm wary of seeming self-righteous. It is terrible to have to check a park for needles before your children walk on the grass, and unpleasant to have to navigate a maze of panhandlers and sex-trade workers on your way to buy groceries.
But to dismiss those people as different, less worthy, sets the stage for their destruction. In the process, we lose a little bit more of what makes us human.
Updated: January 01, 2007