Mayor says he's not uncaring about missing women's plight: Issue arises over lack of support for initiatives tied to the investigation

The Vancouver Sun
Thu 07 Mar 2002

Kim Bolan and Lindsay Kines
Vancouver Sun

Vancouver Mayor Philip Owen is on the defensive after allegations that he has appeared uncaring about the plight of dozens of women who have disappeared from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside in recent years.

"The city does care and the evidence is there," Owen said. "The evidence is we do care."

Owen said Wednesday he did not support a motion Tuesday by fellow Non-Partisan Association councillor Lynne Kennedy to strike a committee to work out strategies for getting drug-addicted sex trade workers off the streets because the mayor felt it was "premature" to do so.

But Owen urged Kennedy to follow up on her own and meet with families of the missing women to get ideas.

"It is not throwing it out. It is just let's start in a quiet in-camera, off-the-record discussion where people are going to discuss with us. Otherwise, it is going to be a huge open process," Owen said of the committee idea.

He also voted against a motion by COPE Councillor Tim Louis to hold an inquiry into the initial Vancouver police investigation into the 50 missing women after the current joint RCMP-Vancouver police investigation is complete.

The joint Missing Women Task Force, which took over the case of the missing women a year ago, continues its massive search of a Port Coquitlam pig farm in connection with the disappearances.

One of the farm's owners, Robert (Willy) Pickton was charged Feb. 22 with two counts of first-degree murder in connection with the deaths of two of the missing women -- Sereena Abotsway, 29, and Mona Wilson, 26.

Louis said Wednesday there was nothing controversial about his motion -- he was just pushing for a inquiry after the current criminal investigation is complete.

Louis said that by his actions Tuesday the mayor is giving the impression he doesn't care about the missing women.

"Why does it take 50 missing women before the investigation begins to rev up? If 50 stockbrokers or accountants had gone missing, we'd have every police force in the nation on it," Louis said. "Because these women were considered at the bottom of the totem pole, the people that should have cared and should have done their job weren't."

He said he was surprised that Owen not only rejected his motion, but Kennedy's as well.

"The mayor is either unable or unwilling to adequately do his duty as mayor and as chair of the police board," Louis said.

Kennedy said she was extremely disappointed with the response of her council colleagues, but will follow up on her own.

"Do you sense I am frustrated?" Kennedy said. "I guess I am just disappointed because I think this is an issue that we could have taken some leadership on."

She said her office was inundated Wednesday with calls and e-mails of support.

Owen said he is not ruling out an eventual inquiry, but doesn't think a commitment to one has to be made now.

And he continued to defend a Vancouver police probe that began in 1998 and which The Sun revealed last fall was assigned to inexperienced and overworked officers without the time or resources to do a thorough job.

The probe was hindered by infighting among officers, a lack of proper training and computer problems. The investigation eventually stalled until a joint RCMP-Vancouver police probe began in early 2001.

"I think the police did act initially very responsibly. They took it very seriously. It was high on the agenda list and I explained the poster and the reward," Owen said, referring to a $100,000 reward in the case he announced jointly with the province in 1999.

"If, after this whole process, we uncover some information that warrants an investigation, we should have an investigation. But in the meantime, let's get our efforts and energies focused on the pig farm and what is going on there."

Owen said his sole focus right now is the Port Coquitlam search and what results from it.

"I think we need to get this investigation at the pig farm completed and whether it is going to be two months, six months or two years, but this is the part we have to focus all our energy. So the issue around the inquiry into the police is a separate issue and I don't think it is appropriate or necessary at this time."

Family members continue to want answers about why the Vancouver police did not do more earlier. But most are willing to wait until the criminal investigation has concluded.

Maggie deVries, whose sister Sarah disappeared in 1998, said an inquiry would allow a "look at how things happened, why it took so long and why so many women had to die before the investigation reached the scope we have now."

But deVries said now is not the time: "Right now police need to be doing the job which they are doing and they don't need to be distracted by an inquiry."

Kathleen Hallmark-McClelland last saw her daughter Helen Mae Hallmark in 1997.

She is upset by Owen's recent remarks in the media about the missing women case.

"I feel that not only should there be an investigation into the Vancouver police department's non-handling of these disappearances, I feel that there should also be an investigation into Mr. Owen," Hallmark-McClelland said.

"There is no doubt in my mind that Mr. Owen would not be in favour of a public inquiry because I do not feel that the police department nor Mr. Owen acted responsibly or took seriously any of this."

Bert Draayers' foster daughter is Sereena Abotsway, who was one of the last to go missing in 2001 and has now been confirmed dead.

Draayers said Wednesday he has been pleased with the way the missing women task force has kept his family informed in recent weeks.

But he said he can understand the concerns of some families who lost loved ones years earlier and did not get answers from the Vancouver police.

"I can question why didn't they do more earlier. Was it because the women were looked down upon and were from the downtown area and were from poor families or didn't have families?" Draayers said. "How did they get there? Was there not something that could have been done for them before?"

B.C. Solicitor General Rich Coleman said Wednesday he has met with all the police forces involved in the pig farm search and reiterated his commitment to all the necessary funds for the investigation.

"We know there are going to be substantial resources committed to this investigation," Coleman said, adding he expects to get a budget estimate on the case next week.

He also expressed confidence in the 85-person police team now committed to the probe.

"We have probably some of the best investigators of these kind in North America," Coleman said. "I'm well satisfied that our people are doing an outstanding job on this particular file." 

Copyright 2002 Vancouver Sun

Task force to talk to families-Mar 6, 2002



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Updated: August 21, 2016