Remember their names

September 3, 2009 by admin

Ryerson student reminds us of the women who have died in Vancouver as a result of violence, sexism and poverty

By Amanda Perri

Heather Gabrielle Chinnock, Tanya Marlo Holyk, Sherry Irving, Sarah de Vries. Recognize the names? If not their names, then perhaps their faces?

Not likely. Undoubtedly, however, if you came face to face with Sarah de Vries, for example, you would be taken aback by her beauty. A young, exceptionally beautiful girl with a lot of pain, suffering, and a life lived in vain.

Sarah de Vries is only one of the 65 women featured in “Remember Their Names” a multimedia video and art installation showcased at Trinity Square Video. The creator, Janis Cole, an award winning Canadian filmmaker, writer, and artist created the exhibit to tribute the victims of Robert Pickton, the monster behind Canada’s worst serial killing case. Surely you recognize his name.

Vancouver’s Downtown East Side, also referred to as the “Low Track,” is the poorest area in all of Canada. Famous for being frequented by prostitutes and drug addicts, there exists high rates of STDs, kidnappings, rape, and death. According to Sarah de Vries herself, once you arrive you only have three options; going to jail, ending up dead, or becoming a lifer.

It is in this area where women as young as eleven years old come to escape, abusive families, drug problems or psychological disorders. A need to escape is what ties the women in Cole’s exhibit together. They all ventured to the Downtown East Side looking for a place to belong and to find some degree of happiness. Unfortunately for the vast majority of these women, it was drugs that they turned to. Isn’t a place to belong and happiness what we are all looking for? Regardless of tormented pasts? That is what Cole and I discussed as I visited her exhibit, which is open from July 4 till August 8 at Trinity Square Video on Richmond St. W.

The cases of missing women, which is marked by negligent action from to police, is what inspired Cole to create this exhibit.

“These were women with families, children, and people that loved them. These were also women that made some bad choices and had problems. I have problems too. Just because I have problems doesn’t mean you can kill me. Doesn’t mean that I can go missing and no body care”

This is exactly how it seemed when the first woman was reported missing in the mid-1980s. Since then, women were reported missing more and more frequently, with numbers rising at unprecedented speeds.

However, police were slow to respond to the reports of missing women and pleas from their families.

Many of them were dismissed by police as being probably overdose victims, women who escaped to find other places to attract business, women who were hardly important enough to search for with any degree of adequate consideration. The women who went missing, so it seemed, were just a collective body of “drug users and sex-trade workers.” Not people. Not people with families, friends, thoughts, feelings or emotions.

These were, seemingly, not people who deserved the help they needed. These were people who society at large was comfortable restricting to Vancouver’s Downtown East Side and ignored.

Cole noticed this attitude and it was what inspired her to pay tribute to these women. She ventured to create a space where their faces could be seen, names, and voices heard. Not once in the whole exhibit do you hear the infamous Robert Pickton’s name whose sensational story to this day overshadows the faces of these women. Cole aspired to create a scene where the women would be remembered for what they were: women whose troubled lives went unnoticed or uncared for until the advent of their brutal slaughter.

The scene is dark, and somewhat eerie. You enter through black curtains and you immediately feel like something is not right. Cole, who has more than 30 years of experience as an artist, was able to create a feeling in her exhibit—one that lingers with you well after you have left. There are missing posters in one corner that Cole collected of some of the women, all of which feature a brief description of their appearance followed by “a known drug-user and sex-trade worker.” Cole suggests that these descriptions were not adequately representing these women as individuals, and aiding in the lack of progress made in their search.

Cole spent years researching the backgrounds of many of the women. She has spoken to and in fact, remained in touch with several of their families and friends, all of whom “loved them and cared for them.”

Through her research on the women, Cole strived to bring to light the lives of these women aside from their line of work and habits. Through one of the victims, Sarah de Vries, Cole is able to reveal the very humanity of all the women presented.

Sarah de Vries went missing from the downtown area when she was 29 years old, but left home when she was only ten. Through Cole’s hard work, she was able to get in contact with one of Sarah’s good friends. He let her use her journals, which she left behind before her disappearance, and he collected for the exhibit. In them, Sarah reveals her “brainstorms,” “thoughts” and “feelings.” I had the privilege of reading them and learning of what a remarkably compassionate, brave, and talented woman she really was behind the labels placed on her. Wonderful qualities that was undoubtedly evident not just in Sarah, not just in the 65 women who went missing, but all the women who frequent the downtown area who need the recognition as people and not, in Sarah’s own words, “expendable Hastings street junkies, and slum.”

Cole’s work emphasizes their humanity and reveals that they were much, much more. If only the police and the society at large realized this at the time they went missing.

Will you remember their names?

For more information on Sarah, the other 64 women and information on the case against Robert Pickton, visit:

Janis Cole is the winner of several prestigious awards for her work in filmmaking, script writing, and more including Toronto Arts Award for Media, Theatrical Producers Achievement Award, plus several Gemini nominations. She created Remember Their Names as her final project to conclude her Master of Fine Art in Documentary Media at Ryerson. Currently, she writes for several Canadian publications and teaches at Ontario College of Art and Design. Her work is powerful, inspirational, and moving.

Her advice to young, Canadian artists? “Realize that becoming an artist is a process, just like anything else. You won’t become an overnight success, so set marks and plan goals for yourself… set a two year mark and a five year mark. In between those times you need to make work, work with people and work with yourself. When you reach the first mark, ask yourself, did I grow from this, or did I burn out?

Filed Under: Arts and Culture

Tagged: Heather Gabrielle Chinnock, Janice Cole, Remembering their names, Ryerson, Sarah de Vries, Sherry Irving, Tanya Marlo Holyk

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Updated: August 21, 2016