Instead of collective shrug, Pickton case should inspire outrage

Globe and Mail

Thursday, June 2, 2005

VANCOUVER -- Their sad, weary faces have been plastered over the front pages of newspapers across the country. Their angry, teary-eyed relatives have been interviewed on the evening news. And yet even as their numbers mount, and the charges against the man accused of killing them multiply, there is something missing in the tragedy involving the slaying of dozens of women from Vancouver's bruised and battered Downtown Eastside.

A sense of outrage.

It's amazing, really, how life has moved on here amid the horror of what has taken place: the disappearance of more than 60 women from one concentrated area of the city. One man, Robert Pickton, has been charged in the deaths of 27 of them. If convicted, he would become the worst serial killer in our country's history and yet, to this point anyway, there doesn't seem to be any great empathy toward the women he is accused of killing, any great relief that the person believed to be responsible for their deaths is behind bars. Nothing.


Because they were prostitutes.

If this case involved children instead of hookers, or soccer moms from the leafy west side of Vancouver instead of women in hot pants from the wrong side of the tracks, it would be completely different. Imagine magnifying the public's concern 100 times and it would still fall far short of what it would be compared to what we're seeing in the Pickton case.

Nor would you need a playground full of toddlers or a classroom full of yummy mummies to disappear to generate the kind of nationwide shock and revulsion completely absent in the deaths of the women from the Downtown Eastside. One or two would produce more angst and horror than the deaths of dozens of prostitutes.

"The sense of oblivion people have about this case, because they're sex-trade workers, is huge," says New Democratic Party MP Libby Davies, whose East Vancouver riding includes the Downtown Eastside.

"They're treated like garbage by society. If they'd been any other group of women, even five women -- imagine five female students from UBC [University of British Columbia] -- there would be a national outcry."

Neil Boyd, a renowned criminologist from Simon Fraser University, says there is one central reason the Pickton case hasn't captured the public's imagination as did Clifford Olson, found guilty of killing 11 B.C. children in the 1980s, or Paul Bernardo, found guilty of more than a dozen rapes and the deaths of three teenaged girls in Ontario.

"It has to do with who the victims are," Mr. Boyd says. "And that doesn't reflect well on us, of course, as a culture. But it has to do with the sense that with both Bernardo and Olsen the victims were, in the minds of the public, totally innocent."

And hookers, in contrast, put themselves in a position to get killed.

Yes, maybe prostitutes do make themselves more vulnerable when they step inside a stranger's car at 2 o'clock in the morning. But prostitution, as we know, is one of the oldest professions in the world and one that isn't going away any time soon. Why the case of the missing women of the Downtown Eastside wouldn't provoke society, and our politicians, to do something to ensure their future safety is beyond comprehension.

All we're prepared to do right now, it seems, is offer a collective shrug.

Yes, yes, a nasty bit of business these killings . . . now pass the hors d'oeuvre, darling.

Perhaps the ennui surrounding the Pickton case also demonstrates the degree to which we have become inured as a society to serial killers -- especially here in the Pacific Northwest. After all, the area has produced some of the worst.

Ted Bundy, who pleaded guilty to killing 28 women, was from Washington state, as was Gary Ridgway, the Green River killer, who killed nearly 50 women, mostly prostitutes. Then there were the Washington, D.C., snipers, both of whom spent considerable time in the Washington state area. And we can't forget B.C.'s own Olsen.

"I think because of the mass media, and because serial killing has achieved a certain kind of notoriety in contemporary films and shows like America's Most Wanted, there's a lot of media attention devoted to these types of crimes and we've become more aware of serial killers . . ." Mr. Boyd said.

"I think we're particularly aware, too, that prostitutes are likely to be the victims. That it's the most dangerous occupation in terms of homicide, bar none. So sadly, tragically, I think there may be a world weariness about it all."

Which we're seeing here, without a doubt.

That indifference may change once the case against Robert Pickton goes to full trial and the public is, for the first time, exposed to some of the evidence.

However, some of it is said to be so graphic and disgusting there is every likelihood it could prompt people to turn their backs on this case more than they already have.

"That is the great fear," Ms. Davies said. "There is a whole bunch of us who feel that if nothing has changed [for prostitutes] by the time this trial is over then we'll just go back to where we were before."

And if that happens society will have failed these women more than it has already.

Globe and Mail



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