Are these women victims of public indifference, too?

Mona Wilson
Helen Hallmark
Sarah de Vries
Cindy Feliks
Tanya Holyk
Patricia Johnson

(Feb 10, 2007)

Since the trial of accused serial killer Robert Pickton began last month in British Columbia, a troubling question has been raised by some trial watchers.

Has the public shown a lack of regard for his alleged victims because most of them were prostitutes and drug addicts? It is a disturbing question that is worth exploring.

The heinous nature of the murders Pickton is accused of committing makes his trial difficult to follow. The goriest true crime books, serial killer movies and reality documentaries can't possibly match the gruesome details coming out of the New Westminster, B.C. courthouse. Even Canadians with strong stomachs are sickened by this case.

"For the most part, the circus surrounding the first week of the trial is gone," observed Matt Kieltyka, who's covering the trial for 24 Hours Vancouver. A University of British Columbia journalism professor cautioned that media coverage of the trial, which was more extensive when the trial opened, may lead to "Pickton trial fatigue."

Understandably, most Canadians have a difficult time absorbing the details of Pickton's alleged depravity. A series of polls taken last month by Decima and the University of British Columbia found that the majority of Canadians want the media to tone down the gory details of the case.

A retired Victoria resident echoed the views of countless Canadians when he said that it's been abundantly clear for years that there had been bodies cut up on this farm, but that he didn't need to keep hearing about it.

There are, however, observers of the trial who worry about public apathy when it comes to the victims. They fear that because most of the victims were prostitutes or drug users from Vancouver's poor, downtown east side, there is little sense of urgency surrounding the trial. The relatively weak presence of public observers in the courtroom has reinforced these fears.

The women whose body parts were found at Pickton's pig farm lived on the margins of society. When they began disappearing, the police response was inadequate, insisted the Toronto Star's Rosie DiManno, leaving Pickton to prey on more women.

The victims' "lack of value," DiManno writes, "was pivotal to the laggard police investigation that permitted the killings to continue apace over a period of many years, even as family and friends and activists pleaded for attention from authorities."

Other observers have reached equally troubling conclusions. Alan Young, a law professor at Osgoode Law School in Toronto, has contrasted the Pickton trial with the heavily publicized trial of serial sex killer Paul Bernardo.

Public interest in the Bernardo trial was stronger, Young argues, because Bernardo and his accomplice wife Karla Homolka "were young, attractive, upwardly mobile and . . . their victims were also young and attractive."

Based on his observations of media coverage and the small public audience at the Pickton trial, Young has concluded that "the majority of Canadians feel . . . that the victims in this case are less worthy than other victims and that is why it's not as interesting."

The verdicts of DiManno and Young -- and others who've expressed similar opinions about the Pickton trial -- suggest most Canadians don't especially care about the victims in this case.

That's a harsh generalization, to be sure, and not necessarily always accurate. Some people care a great deal about the victims. For others, the occasional doses of media sensationalism and grisly nature of the crimes have proven too much for them.

Overall, though, public sympathy for the victims has never seemed particularly strong, and there have been few efforts to humanize them or understand their plight. These women stare at us from aging police mugshots and faded family photographs like ghosts, but their stories are seldom told and the details of their lives are buried in obscurity. The murdered women, in this case, are in danger of being forgotten by the public.

It would be a mistake to suggest that Canadians are unique in this regard. When a serial killer went around murdering dozens of African American children and adolescents in Atlanta between 1979 and 1981, few people outside of that city paid much attention to the ghastly crimes. Had the youths been white and middle class instead of black and poor, it would have been a dramatically different story.

In Ciudad Juarez, a poverty-stricken Mexican border town, more than 400 young women have been savagely murdered since 1993. Only small, dedicated groups of local activists and human rights organizations such as Amnesty International have shown much interest in apprehending the person or persons responsible for the crimes.

The women of Vancouver's downtown east side, the African American children of Atlanta, and the young women of Ciudad Juarez all had certain things in common. They were poor. They were women and youths. Some had dark skin. And their lives ended violently.

The people murdered in Atlanta and Ciudad Juarez were also victims of public indifference. Will the same eventually be said of the alleged victims of Robert Pickton?

Andrew Hunt is chair of the history department at the University of Waterloo.


To learn more about the 26 women who died in Vancouver, B.C., visit The Record's website at and click on Missing Lives.




Missing Women Tip Line: 1-877-687-3377

Updated: August 21, 2016