Large crowd comes out to remember missing women in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside

VANCOUVER, B.C. More than a thousand people took time off from Olympic celebrations Sunday to remember women who have gone missing, honouring them with a march through the city's gritty Downtown Eastside neighbourhood.

Every Valentines Day for the last 19 years, family and friends of missing and murdered women have been marching in memory of their loved ones.

On Sunday, about 1,200 people in Vancouver followed the drumming of female First Nations elders on the march, a crowd size not reached even in the years after serial killer Robert Pickton was arrested and convicted for murdering women from the area.

Maggie de Vries' sister Sarah went missing from the Downtown Eastside in 1998. She told the media before the march began that the Olympics allows them to shine a spot light on what still needs to be done to protect women in the neighbourhood.

"I think it is an opportunity, having international media here in the city right now means that today is that day that can put greater pressure on our government to take steps," she said. "We're asking for a commitment to a public inquiry as soon as one is possible."

Many of the women who went missing were prostitutes or drug addicts, as Sarah de Vries was.

Maggie de Vries said the police ignored the cases of the missing until there was too much pressure to avoid an investigation any longer.

"They were a group we, as a society, don't see as human. When they went missing there were just so many things done wrong and such a lack of initiative for a long time."

The government has said there won't be a public inquiry into the police response until after Pickton exhausts all possibility of appeal, but de Vries said British Columbia's attorney general could at least give the relatives of the missing women a commitment that an inquiry will be held.

Corinthia Kelly, who works with women in the neighbourhood, said women, especially First Nations, still go missing every week.

"Aboriginal women in our society are perceived - as they have been ever since Europeans first came here - perceived to be disposable."

Police don't investigate the disappearances of First Nations women in the same way and that's why women are allowed to disappear without an investigation, Kelly said.

Karen Williams stood in the middle of the noisy crowd, clutching a stack of flyers with her sister's picture and handing them out to anyone who would listen to the story of Alberta Gail Williams.

She said her sister was working in Prince Rupert, on the northwest B.C. coast, when she vanished in 1989. Her family knew immediately that something was wrong, but Williams said police didn't believe them.

One month and one day after she disappeared, her body was found by hikers in the woods. No one has ever been charged.

"Give us some justice," she said as tears rolled down her face. "We've been waiting too long, this Williams family, nearly 20 years."

Many of the more than 60 women who have vanished from the Downtown Eastside have never been found and Williams concedes that at least her family knows what happened to Alberta.

"At least we had a chance to bury her," she said. "But I still want my sister's name to be a household name."

Pickton was originally charged with killing 26 women, but the trial judge divided the case in two. After a long trial, he was convicted of six murders.

His appeal is sitting before the Supreme Court of Canada. The provincial government has said if Pickton loses his appeal, it won't go ahead with the remaining 20 charges.



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

Updated: August 21, 2016