Prostitutes prepared for media onslaught as Pickton murder case before jury

Steve Mertl
Canadian Press

Monday, January 22, 2007

VANCOUVER (CP) - It would have seemed unthinkable just a few years ago, the idea of police and prostitutes closing ranks to protect vulnerable sex-trade workers from street predators and aggressive reporters.

But police and activists working with prostitutes say it's a sign of how far the relationship between cops and the so-called survival sex trade has come since women began disappearing from the seedy streets of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

A jury began hearing evidence Monday in the trial of Robert Pickton on six counts of first-degree murder before an unusually intense media glare for a case in Canada.

Community workers braced for a horde of journalists to descend on the bleak neighbourhood from where most of the 26 women Pickton is accused of killing disappeared.

So far it hasn't materialized, said Kate Gibson, executive director of WISH, which runs a drop-in centre for sex-trade workers.

That's at least partly due to the aggressive outreach to prostitutes and media organizations by groups like hers, concerned women will be accosted by reporters and cameras on the street.

"That's probably because they've been sweeping through our offices, having conversations," Gibson said after a joint briefing Monday with Vancouver police officials.

Gibson said groups working with prostitutes on the Downtown Eastside began working on a media strategy as early as last May.

"I think that they're a little nervous," Gibson said. "I think they're fearful. I think they're not really sure what to expect."

The women are worried what the exposure will mean to their daily lives, she said. In some cases their families do not know they're working the streets.

The goal was to provide news organizations with material to tell the story of the Downtown Eastside in a way that keeps sex-trade workers safe, she said.

One approach was to hand out a video on Monday that contains interviews of several sex-trade workers in the hope TV stations would use them rather than doing their own on-camera interviews.

The women, shot through a cloth screen to shield their identities, talk about their feelings as the jury portion of the case gets underway.

Ironically, some of the material will be hard for news outlets to use because the women vent their rage at Pickton - who is presumed innocent.

But they also speak in deeply emotional terms about the dangers of the survival sex trade - so called because it involves women who must sell themselves to feed insatiable drug addictions.

"It's unfortunate that a lot of women suffered a very violent death," said one, who wishes for rules to keep them safe from some of the crazed men they encounter.

"I don't say that we encourage men to do it," said the woman, a prostitute for seven years who has been assaulted several times. "I think they're born sick and just need a reason to act."

Another woman sneered at the public expressions of sympathy for the missing women as the trial approached.

"For somebody to care now, it's too late," she said, but added the they won't be forgotten by their friends on the Downtown Eastside. "People do love us down here.

"I've been down hear ever since I was 15 years old - I'm 25 now - and I've seen a lot of change. I've seen the streets eat up women like nothing."

Vancouver police came under fire for not moving more quickly to investigate the women's disappearances as possible murders. Critics blamed an attitude that the Downtown Eastside's prostitutes were seen as expendable.

Insp. John McKay, who oversaw the Downtown Eastside from November 2001 until becoming the Chief Const. Jamie Graham's executive officer, said a lot has changed in the way police relate to the neighbourhood's prostitutes.

"Our goal here is to keep people safe, regardless of who they are," he said.

Working with former constable Dave Dixon, whose beat for 25 years was the Downtown Eastside and who now acts as a civilian liaison to the police, the department developed a safety training program for those who work in "high-risk" environments.

McKay said more than 100 sex-trade workers have graduated since 2003, earning certificates signed by the police chief. It's the only program of its kind in Canada, he added.

Police recruits are also indoctrinated about what the survival sex-trade is all about, McKay said.

Gibson agreed police seem more sensitive to sex-trade workers but the reality of the women's harsh lives has not changed.

"For sure the police are a lot more vigilant and the women are vigilant of one another," she said.

"But women still live in the same conditions as they lived five, seven years ago when all this was taking place. They're still very vulnerable to violence and it's always a dangerous situation."

 The Canadian Press 2007

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