Taken from her family Janet Henry - missing since June 28, 1997

Janet Henry comes from the KwaKwaQueWak Nation in Kingcome Inlet in British Columbia. She was the youngest in a family of thirteen. Her siblings have many happy memories of their childhood together. Although their mother fell ill with lupis and rheumatoid arthritis and had to undergo many operations, the older children were able to look after their younger siblings. Their father, a logger and fisherman, ensured that the family never went without. The eldest daughter, Donna Henry, recalls growing up immersed in a very rich culture. When Janet Henry was young, Donna Henry practiced traditional dances and songs with her.

The security the family once enjoyed was short lived. The three oldest children were taken away to residential school. After the death of their father, their mother no longer had anyone to help her care for the younger children. Janet Henry and four of her brothers and sisters were placed in foster homes.

One of Janet Henry’s sisters, Sandra Gagnon, describes the break up of the family as the beginning of "a living nightmare." Many of the siblings lost both their ties to their culture and their sense of self-esteem. Their years in residential school or foster homes were followed by alcoholism and depression. Their sister Lavina was raped and murdered when she was 19. Another sibling killed himself.

In the midst of all the trauma the family had been subjected to, Sandra Gagnon remembers how they always expected that Janet would have a bright future ahead of her. "Janet was really a brilliant young woman," she said. "I never could have imagined what happened to her." Janet Henry graduated from high school and attended hairdressing school. She got married and had a daughter, to whom she was devoted.

However, when Janet Henry’s marriage broke up in the late 1980s, her husband gained custody of their daughter. Janet Henry was devastated. Donna Henry recalls, "I watched my baby sister spiral." Janet Henry eventually ended up living in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, a low income neighbourhood known for drug and the street level sex trades. Her family learned that she had begun attending parties where she engaged in sex in exchange for drugs.

It was a dangerous life. Violence against sex workers in the Downtown Eastside is all too common. By 1990, however, women in the Vancouver sex trade, and the families of women who had gone missing from the downtown Eastside, had begun to suspect that there was more to this danger than random acts of violence.

Janet Henry was apparently aware of the danger and therefore phoned her brothers and sisters frequently to let them know she was okay. The last time they heard from her was in late June 1997.

Janet Henry’s family quickly became worried about her when her usual telephone contacts with them ceased. Sandra Gagnon and her brother went to the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood looking for her. After a few days, they reported her missing to the police. Because the small amount of money that Janet Henry had was still in her bank account, the family feared the worst.

Sandra Gagnon believes the police initially had one or two suspects in mind and did what they could to follow these leads. However, once these suspects were ruled out, she says the family heard less and less from the police. She speaks positively of the officers who initially investigated her sister’s disappearance. However, like other family members whose sisters and daughters disappeared from the Downtown Eastside during this time, Sandra Gagnon feels the city and the police force should have acknowledged the wider pattern of disappearances much sooner and taken concerted action to ensure the safety of women in the Downtown Eastside. "They never took the threat seriously," she says. "I can guarantee you that if it wasn’t the Downtown Eastside and they weren’t hookers, something would have been done in an instant."

In April 1999 family members of missing women called on the police to issue a reward for information about the women who were going missing in the Downtown Eastside. Although police had recently offered rewards for information about robberies in more affluent neighbourhoods of the city, they initially declined to do so in the case of the missing women. Instead the city suggested offering a $5000 reward for any of the missing women who came forward, implying that they did not believe they had been victims of foul-play. Mayor Owen said, "Police have said there is no indication of crimes. Why don’t we start with [the $5000 reward] until we find out that someone is killing these women?"

Under mounting pressure from the families and increasing media coverage of the issue, the police force eventually changed its position. The first posters offering a reward for information on the missing women were distributed in July 1999. A small group of officers was assigned to work on the disappearances on an ongoing basis. In 2000, the RCMP joined the review of evidence. A larger task force was formed the following year.

On 6 February 2002, the Vancouver City Police/RCMP Task Force moved into a farm in Port Coquitlam, outside Vancouver and sealed it off. For 21 months, they conducted one of the largest police searches in Canadian history. On the basis of evidence collected at the farm, the Crown initially laid charges against Robert Pickton, the owner of the farm, for the murder of 15 women who had gone missing from the Downtown Eastside, the vast majority of which were women who went missing after 1997.

Robert Pickton’s case is expected to come to trial in 2005 or 2006 on at least 22 charges. In the meantime, the investigation of other women missing from the Downtown Eastside continues. By April 2004, the number of cases under investigation by police had grown to 60 women and one transgender person. Nineteen of the missing women are Indigenous.

Janet Henry is not among the women whose DNA has found at the Port Coquitlam farm. One of Janet Henry’s sisters went through the clothing and other belongings found by police at the farm but didn’t recognize anything of Henry’s. Family members continue to hope that their sister is still alive, but are slowly giving up hope. "I go into denial and just keep hoping that maybe she just went far away and she has been unable to get a hold of us," said Donna Henry. But deep down inside, I know. We will probably never see her again."

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Amnesty International Report-Stolen Sisters-Canada-Oct 4, 2004



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Updated: August 21, 2016