VANCOUVER EASTSIDE MISSING WOMEN
'I'd give anything to have her back'
As drug addicts and hookers, many of the 63 women who vanished from Vancouver's seamy Downtown Eastside were mothers who struggled to stay in touch with their children up to the moment they disappeared. Now that the mystery has turned to horror, how are these youngsters coping? JANE ARMSTRONG meets two young women who are thriving even as they keep the memory of their mothers alive
By JANE ARMSTRONG
The memories are fading fast, so the girls take special care of their photo albums. Page after page of snapshots show smiling mothers with smiling daughters.
In her collection, Debra Chartier has detailed narratives beside each photo. There she is in her mother's Vancouver apartment, or on the day they went to the park. One shot is very recent and shows Debra modelling her mother's wedding dress, a perfect fit.
By the time it was taken, Janet Henry had long since vanished.
Kristina Bateman's album also is crammed with images of her mother, Georgina Papin. Her favourite was was taken five years ago. The two are dressed in traditional native clothing, getting ready for a powwow in Mission, B.C.
"She looks so happy," she says, squinting at the photo.
Kristina and Debra have never met and, at first glance, would not seem to have all that much in common.
Raised by her grandparents, Kristina is 17 and lives in the desert glitter of Las Vegas. Home is a two-storey, white stucco house in a comfortable subdivision about five kilometres west of the famed Vegas strip.
Debra, 18, attends college in Prince George, a nine-hour drive north of Vancouver. But until last month, she lived an hour away in McBride, a remote hamlet in B.C.'s Cariboo Mountains, with her father, stepmother and eight-year-old stepbrother.
Where Kristina likes drama and studied ballet for 10 years, Debra's passion is for the northern B.C. outdoors. She grew up riding horses and snowboarding, and is now into archery. She practises at her boyfriend's barn outside McBride, sending arrows flying into targets stuck to bales of hay.
Even so, she and Kristina share something that has set them apart from other kids nearly all their lives: Their mothers were drug addicts in Vancouver's seamy Downtown Eastside, women who financed their habits through prostitution and whose contact with their children was largely sporadic and long-distance.
And one day the intermittent calls and letters just stopped altogether, as they did for the dozens of other children as women began to disappear from Vancouver's skid row, victims of what has become the worst serial-murder case in Canadian history.
In all, 63 women vanished, and police now say they have confirmed that 16 of them are dead. Based on evidence collected on his farm in suburban Port Coquitlam, investigators have filed 15 counts of first-degree murder against a man named Robert William Pickton.
Those women alone left behind at least 23 children. Relatives of the victims are eligible for $5,000 from B.C.'s Criminal Injuries Compensation Board and can apply for extra money for grief counselling. Now, with Mr. Pickton's preliminary hearing a little more than two weeks away, the experts who provide such counselling say the children will certainly need it.
Lynette Pollard-Elgert and Kathy Priest-Peries have counselled more than a dozen of the youngsters, and say they have been shocked at the complexity and enormity of their grief, the product of years of pent-up pain and shame.
Most, like Kristina and Debra, are being raised by relatives and often enjoy a home life far more stable than what their mothers had. Others, such as Kristina's six younger siblings, have been seized by the authorities and placed for adoption or in foster homes.
Not only are the children coping with the loss of a parent, the counsellors say, many feel ashamed because their mothers were drug-addicted prostitutes, denizens of Canada's most notorious neighbourhood.
"It's a disenfranchised loss," Ms. Pollard-Elgert said, explaining that the kids, from an early age, read the clues that their mothers were not the same as other mothers. One giveaway: Even though they had disappeared, no one seemed to be looking for them.
"Society has taken on an attitude that this person was marginal and in some way disposable because they weren't . . . a Supreme Court judge, or something that we would think was making a valuable contribution," Ms. Priest-Peries said.
"So the message kids get is that it is no big deal, you're not entitled to the same degree of pain that another would be."
One 11-year-old boy, whose mother's remains were recently found on the farm, said he was relieved that he has a different last name. "He felt that gave him some freedom around whether he even wanted to claim an association with her," Ms. Pollard-Elgert explained.
Others have been clinging to some hope that their mothers will show up alive one day, she said, so they have never faced up to the fact that they are dead. "You need to have that final awareness that that person is dead, whether you've seen the body or whatever helps you to recognize that this is final."
Children's active imaginations can let them go for years pretending a lost one is alive. "Kids are very magical," Ms. Pollard-Elgert said. "They will come up with all sorts of ways to protect them from the information."
Some have been shielded from reality. One 10-year-old girl, raised since infancy by her grandparents, has been told that her missing mother is an older sister. The truth, the grandparents say, can wait.
Others find it hard to cope. The two children of Sarah de Vries, also tied to the Pickton farm last summer, are being raised by their grandmother and great aunt in rural Ontario. They have been told that their mother was killed, but keep asking why her body has not been found. The horror of what may have happened to her is simply beyond them.
But Debra and Kristina, on the cusp of adulthood, have few illusions about the difficult lives their mothers led and try not to think about how they may have died. Both are angry that the police did not start looking sooner.
"People said she was missing and I didn't know what that meant," Debra recalled. "To me, it was that she wasn't there any more."
Perhaps that is why she, like Kristina, wants to work in
law enforcement. There may be a way to help others avoid all that they've been
Although she can't remember it, Kristina spent her first three years with her mother living on the Enoch reserve just west of Edmonton. Then Georgina asked Ruth and Baldwin Bateman, whose son Kris is Kristina's father, to take the child she felt she could no longer care for.
Today, that child has her mother's wide mouth and large eyes. A Grade 12 student, she plans to go to university, and last Saturday wrote her college-entrance exams.
"I know she suffered, but she didn't talk about that," she said, sitting in her Las Vegas living room with her grandparents and boyfriend nearby. "She told me to be happy. She always used to say: 'Be proud and stay strong, my girl.' I have also had things in my life that I've had to overcome. It's kind of like we're the same."
Kristina said her mother taught her to have faith. "Not just in myself, but in other people. She always hoped that things would get better."
For three years after that eerie final conversation, she never gave up hope that her mother would call again. Then last month, the police confirmed that Georgina's DNA had been found at the Pickton property.
Now, Kristina doesn't want her mother remembered as just another name on a list of murder victims. "She was everything to everyone who knew her."
Recently, she and her grandmother flew to Alberta to attend a memorial service for her mother, and met six of Georgina's surviving brothers and sisters as well as her great aunt, Pauline Papin, who looked after her when she was a baby.
The family sang traditional Cree songs and Kristina read a letter to her mother: "I will always remember what you always used to say to me on the phone. I will never forget your voice. You taught me to have a kind and peaceful heart."
Two weeks earlier, at a memorial in a Downtown Eastside church, about two dozen mourners paid their respects at a much quieter service. Most who attended were street women and the volunteers who try to help them. They knew a different Georgina -- a wily, streetwise drug user.
Police say that she "fit the profile" of many of the missing women -- she was addicted to heroin and had been abused and neglected as a child. Her father, George, was an alcoholic, and her mother, Alice, was a drug addict whose nine children were farmed out to foster homes.
Only Georgina and younger brother Ricky stayed together. They were often beaten and began smoking marijuana at the age of 10. At 12, Georgina had a pimp, and by the time she was 18, she had lived in 32 homes and institutions.
She met Kris Bateman while still in her teens and visiting Vegas with Ricky. They dated for two years before Kristina was born in 1984. But the relationship foundered and Georgina returned to the Enoch reserve with her daughter in 1985.
Kristina's grandparents were heartbroken and begged Georgina to stay. Two years later, they got a call from Georgina's aunt Pauline, who told them the authorities were threatening to take the girl. "Georgina always wanted what was best for Kristina," Ms. Papin recalled in an interview. "She really loved Kristina, she just knew she had an addiction . . . she struggled all the time with that."
To avoid losing Kristina, Georgina brought her back to the Batemans. "At least she's got a chance that I never had," Mr. Bateman, now 72, said she told him before boarding the plane back to Edmonton. "To give up your child is probably the hardest thing you can ever do," he added. "By leaving her here, she knew Kristina would have a future."
For that, Kristina said she is grateful. "She knew she couldn't look after me. All she really wanted was for all of us to be happy."
After that, the two saw each other only once. Georgina had two more children (Stuart Michael George in 1987 and Leslie Ann in 1988) and served time in Burnaby Correctional Centre for women, mostly because of petty crimes committed to buy drugs. She tried to beat her habit but failed, telling Ricky once that drugs helped her to cope with life. "I can escape. I'm in my world. Everything is good around me."
But then in 1997, Georgina called and invited Kristina to visit her in Mission, about a hour's drive from Vancouver. She was off drugs, pregnant with twins and engaged to D'Arcy Pelletier, a man she had met in a treatment centre. It seemed to Ruth Bateman that she finally might be settling down.
She lived not far from her brother George and sister Bonnie, whom she saw often, and had already had two children with D'Arcy -- Dillon Sky Rain in 1993, Autumn Wind in 1997. "She was very playful with them and they were very attached to her, all of them. They loved their mom," Bonnie said.
She also worked in a native friendship centre and wasted little time when Kristina, then 12, arrived with little sense of her heritage beyond having portrayed Geronimo in a school play. Georgina presented her with a traditional dress, braided her hair and organized a ceremony to give her a native name -- Snowbird. Kristina met her half-siblings and, for that one night, slept in the same house as her mother.
The future looked bright, but Georgina didn't stay on track much longer. A year after her twin daughters Winter Star and Little Storm were born in 1998, her life unravelled for good.
She and D'Arcy argued frequently until he left her. Alone with four young children, she began to drink and use drugs again. "She didn't know how to really solve her problems without doing it that way," her brother George said.
On April 30, 1999, she celebrated Bonnie's birthday, and then said she was going to Vancouver if Bonnie and a friend would look after the kids. She said she would be gone for a few days, but she never came back.
Kristina and her grandparents were worried. Ruth Bateman called Pauline Papin, who said no one in the family had heard from Georgina, and tried to file a missing person's report. The Alberta police refused, saying only an immediate relative could do that. Her social-assistance cheques were returned to the government.
Around the same time as her last call to Kristina, Georgina had also phoned Pauline, who remembers her suddenly discussing where she wanted to be buried. "It's like she knew she was going to go. She says: 'Oh, I don't think I'm going to be around very long, Auntie. . . . This is how I feel.' "
Kristina said she also knew something was wrong. "I had a feeling that something bad had happened, but I didn't want to know."
Now, she is looking forward to her 18th birthday, when she will become an adult and be free to travel on her own. She wants to visit Canada again and get to know her mother better.
That birthday is Nov. 4, the day that Mr. Pickton's
preliminary hearing is scheduled to begin.
When still together, the Chartiers had lived in suburban Vancouver. But after the split, her father took Debra to McBride, population 700, saying he wanted "to get away from the city." Father and daughter loved their new home. Mr. Chartier especially likes the fact that cellphones still don't work in McBride.
After the move, Debra visited Vancouver a couple of times, and Janet came to McBride once, in 1997. She, like Georgina, had a tumultuous childhood. A member of the Kwakiutl nation, her father was a fisherman in Kingcome Inlet on B.C.'s central coast, who drowned in a boating accident. His family of 10 was dispersed, the older children sent to residential schools, the younger ones to foster homes.
Janet, according to her older sister Sandra Gagnon, was shy and sensitive. After graduating from high school, she took a hairdressing course and then met Art. They married in 1982, had Debra two years later, and lived in a house in suburban Maple Ridge.
Although she barely even drank, Janet was introduced to hard drugs after breaking up with Art and becoming involved with a man named Don. Soon, she was working as a prostitute to pay for both of their habits.
Debra has a photo of Janet and Don in their Vancouver apartment, and under it she has written that they often fought. She can remember standing in the hallway, waiting for the argument to end.
After Don died of an overdose, Janet spent seven years in the Downtown Eastside's squalid hotel rooms. On several occasions, she tried to quit drugs, according to her sister, who once tried to get Janet out of the drug-infested neighbourhood by finding an apartment for her in Maple Ridge. Two months later, she was back, having been evicted for not paying the rent.
Debra, like Kristina, last saw her mother in 1997. In March that year, Janet took the Greyhound to McBride and stayed in a motel. Debra gave her a necklace that read "Mom."
Three months later, Janet was gone, her belongings left untouched in her East Hastings hotel room and a welfare cheque not cashed. Debra tried to generate interest in the case. "I really miss her," she wrote in a 1998 letter to The Vancouver Sun. "I miss hearing her voice and all the letters I used to get.
"Sometimes it hurts so much I couldn't tell you how much. It feels like a part of me is missing without her. I'd give anything to have her back safe. I'm sure, if she could, she'd tell us where she is. I only hope that she is still alive, so that if she did pass on later, I would see her one more time and tell her, 'I love you.' That way she'd know."
She heard nothing but never gave up hope. Even last June, as she posed for photos with her father, stepmother and Aunt Sandra at her high-school graduation, she wished her mother were there.
Today, she is a first-year criminology student at the College of New Caledonia in Prince George, a two-hour drive west of McBride. Like Kristina, she is interested in detective work, and said she has always liked biology and forensics.
Even now she can't understand why the Vancouver police waited so long to search for the missing women. "I wish they had done more about it," she said last weekend after returning to McBride for Thanksgiving. "It's racist or something. Just because they were prostitutes, they [the police] probably thought they had gone someplace. What did people say? If 20 college students had gone missing, they would have looked harder."
With her spectacles and braces, Debra hardly looks 18, and says she is still adjusting to life in Prince George. She misses her boyfriend, her family and "my mountains." Prince George, with a population of 80,000, has "too many people."
Her favourite subject is psychology, and the class has been studying suicide and what causes it. "You go straight to the root, like what happened in their past. With prostitution, you have to look at how they were raised. So, I guess there should be more help for kids," she says, her voice trailing off.
It has been five years since her mother's disappearance. She thinks her mother would be proud of how she has grown up and happy that she has moved far from Vancouver.
"She loved these mountains too," she said.
The experts don't even want to guess. Grief counsellors like Lynette Pollard-Elgert say they are charting new territory with this case, grappling with trauma that is so different, she can't make a blanket prognosis. "It really depends on the personality and the resilience of these kids. So we don't know."
Those with the best chance have someone they can talk to about their mothers. "The way to get through grief is with supportive, compassionate people," Ms. Pollard-Elgert explained, people who have "an understanding of what's normal in an abnormal situation. People who have been through violent crime are so isolated. They feel so different and they don't share their story easily."
She predicted that the courtroom for Mr. Pickton's preliminary hearing and anticipated trial will be filled with relatives of his alleged victims.
As for Debra and Kristina, she said it's not unusual for those who have difficult childhoods to find themselves drawn to careers in which they can serve others.
Right now, the two have different plans for the future. Kristina loves to travel and thinks she has a bit of her mother's free spirit. She has been to Europe already and would like to visit Alberta again to get to know her relatives better.
Debra wants to stay close to home. She dreams of living in a log cabin deep in the woods near McBride's mountains, although she is still working on how to combine that with a job in law enforcement.
She said she has begun to think of her mother less often, but later admitted that her thoughts turn to Janet whenever she is upset or depressed. "You just do what you have to do to survive."
Women and children
As well as faces and names, many of those who vanished had families. Here are the names of the women now considered officially dead along with the children they left behind.
Tanya Holyk (last seen in October, 1996).
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Updated: August 21, 2016