Downtown Eastside plaques to memorialize missing women


Michele Pineault has nothing left of her daughter Stephanie Lane to mark her passing. No body, no headstone. Nothing to show for the 20-year-old who was one of the 62 women who went missing from the Downtown Eastside during Robert Pickton's murderous rampage.

Eventually, a small brass plaque bearing Lane's name, birthdate and the word 'missing' will be installed in the sidewalk at Victoria and Hastings, the place she was last seen.

It will be one of 62 such sidewalk memorials for women believed to have been Pickton's victims 26 of whom he was charged with killing and 36 who were never found. (He was tried and convicted in the deaths of six.)

But beginning later this year the 26 victims Pickton was charged with killing, and another 36 who have never been found will be memorialized with small brass plaques placed on sidewalks where they were last seen or lived.

The project is being done by a non-profit Vancouver group that uses art for therapy and restorative justice, the Canadian Foundation for Creative Development and Innovation. It has received support from all but one of the families and has been unanimously endorsed by the city's public art committee.

Sean Kirkham, a foundation director, said the idea for the plaques was taken from cobblestone-sized "Stolperstein" or "stumbling block" memorials erected in Germany to remember those killed in the Holocaust. The fact that the victims took a back seat in the Missing Women's Inquiry only underscored the need to celebrate them, he said.

"The message that we tried to display in this is that throughout the debacle of the Missing Women's Inquiry it is the women who have been forgotten. Not a lot was said in this about them" he said. "It was more about the police shortcomings and Pickton. We wanted to put back the focus on the women."

But the idea of placing what some see as a headstone into a public sidewalk has raised eyebrows, particularly among the city's business improvement associations, which were asked for feedback by the city's streets department.

"Will people know it is public art? When is it no longer a grave marker and when is it public art and will people know what it means?" asked Sharon Townsend, the executive director of the South Granville Business Improvement Association."

"Do we put a marker at 16th Ave and Granville where police shot that guy crawling across the street so that it never happens again? Everyone is quite passionate about the fact that yes, we need to make sure this never happens again, but is this the right way to do it?"

Kirkham said the $18,000 project, which was funded entirely by the group without government support, has not faced any negative feedback and has been endorsed by the Hastings Crossing BIA, where most the plaques will be placed.

The project will see each woman's name and birthdate engraved into a 4" by 4" brass plaque attached to a brick.

For each of the 26 Pickton was charged with killing the word "Murdered" will be inscribed below the birthdate. For everyone else whose remains have not been found, the word "Missing" will be used.

Nine women whose DNA was found but who remain unidentified will have plaques marked with their police case file number. If they are ever identified, the plaques will be replaced with their proper name, Kirkham said. Only one person, the father of Heather Bottomley, has asked that her plaque not be installed in the Downtown Eastside.

Kirkham said the city has also asked the foundation to create a memorial that explains the context of the art work. It will be mounted somewhere in the Hastings and Main area. The foundation is also building an interactive website that will give biographical information about the women but won't focus on Pickton, he said.

The foundation is paying for the cost of the installation, but to keep costs down the blocks will only be placed as the city repairs the sidewalks. While most of the blocks will be installed in front of rooming houses and street corners in the Downtown Eastside, a few will be located elsewhere, including in front of St. Paul's Hospital, the last known location of one victim. Cara Ellis, who was last seen in front of The Bay store, will have a memorial stone placed at Granville and Georgia Streets, Kirkham said.

For Lorelei Williams, having her cousin Tanya Holyk's name on a plaque outside the Vernon Rooms

breathes a little memory back into a woman she worries has been largely forgotten.

"Everybody knows Robert Pickton's name but they don't know the girls behind all of this. This is a way to honour them and have them not be forgotten. I love the idea that it could help another lady down there in the Downtown Eastside if they see their name and realize it could happen to them too," she said.

Williams said at first she was bothered about the macabre idea of someone walking on her cousin's memorial. "But you know, it is a good view for the women down there if they are sad and looking at the ground, and they see her name. It is the perfect spot for them to see it."

Sarah de Vries said she has a lot of faith that those who live in the Downtown Eastside will respect the memorial stones, even though some may walk on them.

"It is a street, so I think it will happen. But for the people who know it is there, they won't do that," she said, adding she was touched by the art group's efforts. "It means a lot to me as her daughter to know that people are remembering them and doing so much for them even though they are gone."

Calls to the Hastings Crossing BIA were not returned. The city also did not provide a spokesperson for comment.

Charles Gauthier, the executive director of the Downtown Vancouver BIA, said he accepts that the murders and disappearances were a terrible chapter in the city's history. "If it means something to someone who lost a loved one, I am not going to stand in the way of that," he said.

Townsend said she's not opposed to memorializing the missing and murdered women. But she thinks some people will be offended or concerned about walking over what essentially are macabre headstones.

And she's had experience dealing with misunderstandings when it comes to street fixtures. During the 2010 Winter Olympics, the BIA installed on sidewalks 250 decals representing the stylized flags of every nation participating at the Games. The association was criticized by some politicians and by several countries' consular staff for supposedly breaching international protocol not to disrespect their flags.

"We got beaten up a lot by people who didn't like the idea someone might be walking on their flag, even though it wasn't a flag," she said. "The idea of essentially a headstone on a sidewalk is going to bring just as much concern."





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

Updated: August 21, 2016