Sex workers lost trust in police, missing women inquiry told


VANCOUVER Activist Jamie Lee Hamilton told the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry that sex trade workers displaced into the "killing fields" of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside in the mid-1980s lost their trust in police who became enforcers rather than protectors.

The commission, at the first of a series of panels, heard emotional evidence Monday from Hamilton, sex worker client and then-Missing Women website master Wayne Leng and also from Maggie de Vries.

De Vries, a teacher and children's author, also wrote a book about her sister Sarah, who entered the downtown street life and the sex trade as a young teen. Sarah, of mixed black, Mexican and indigenous heritage, was fleeing racism and cruelty from other kids that she experienced in Vancouver's West Point Grey neighbourhood and felt excitement and belonging in the street community, Maggie told the commission.

A prolific writer and poet, Sarah wrote in a poem included in Maggie's book that she wasn't accepted by either Caucasian or black society. "I have no people, I have no nation and I am alone," she wrote.

The commission also viewed a chilling five-minute CBC interview from 1993 in which Sarah shoots up heroin on-camera but warns others to "stay away" from heroin addiction.

Sarah got caught up in heroin addiction while involved in the dangerous Downtown Eastside sex trade and disappeared at age 29, in 1998. A well-loved and respected resident of the area, Sarah had strong ties to her friends, family and her two children and could not have disappeared on her own. Her disappearance galvanized family and friends who searched tirelessly, put up posters about Sarah and other missing women and called on the Vancouver Police Department to offer a reward for information on who was preying on the women.

De Vries said that only three years ago, after her book was published, she learned that Sarah appeared to have been repeatedly victimized and sexually abused when she was as young as eight or nine years old by a pedophile who lived near their family home.

De Vries also related a horrific incident in which her sister was raped and almost killed by a man from whom she escaped, almost naked, in a Vancouver suburb, sometime in the early 1990s. Sarah made her way to a police station where she was humiliated and given no help. Hitchhiking, she was picked up by another, unrelated assailant who also tried to sexually assault her and finally by a kindly cab driver, who drove her home.

De Vries and Hamilton agreed that police in that case lost "a very precious moment," by throwing away a chance to help a desperate young woman who never again would trust them. "She shared that story . . . warning about a man who beat her almost to death," said de Vries. Sarah also learned, tragically, "that you can't trust police to help you even if you're a victim of extreme violence, if you look like a prostitute," said Maggie. "She learned it was better to go out to the highway and stick out her thumb than turn to police."

Hamilton said all police agencies must learn to respond promptly to vulnerable women. "It's very important for the police to respond appropriately, give her a blanket, a safe space, bring in a female officer. How do you explain to a male officer that you've just been violated?"

Hamilton, who entered sex work at age 15, in 1971, said that until a 1984 court injunction forced sex workers to Vancouver's isolated and dangerous Eastside, police were either "protective" or just left working women alone.

"Women had worked in clusters and had a good relationship with police before but then we were displaced to dangerous, isolated areas, we couldn't protect each other and the police just dumped us there and did nothing to protect women," said Hamilton, referring to the zone north of Vancouver's Hastings Street as well as the Downtown Eastside.

Trust broke down between women on the streets and the Vancouver police as "a different kind of violent customer" began to prey unchecked on women who increasingly used hard drugs to cope, Hamilton told an intently listening Commissioner Wally Oppal.

"Many women turned to drugs, who before the 1984 injunction (clearing sex workers out of residential areas) weren't involved with drugs,"said Hamilton. "I lost many friends to drugs and then in the late 80s, early 90s, women started disappearing and some, like Cheryl Ann Joe, were found brutally murdered."

Sex workers set up what Hamilton called a "meaningful dialogue" with the Vancouver Police Department that met as often as once a week, but at the same time, she said "there was a lot of mistrust because police were enforcing a law that turned us into criminals."

Vancouver police also were "in denial" about the soaring numbers of women going missing in the Downtown Eastside, said Hamilton. But she said when she tried to provide a safe place for sex trade workers to do business and get food and clothing, by opening Grandma's House at Princess and East Hastings Street, the police shut the house down, calling it a brothel.

Both de Vries and Hamilton said the Vancouver police have reached out recently to women in the Downtown Eastside, through a female sex trade liaison officer and regular neighbourhood meetings, but much more has to be done.

Oppal has said he hopes the panels will help him write meaningful recommendations in his final report, due in June 2012. His inquiry is looking into why it took the Vancouver police and Coquitlam, B.C., RCMP so long to halt serial killer Robert Pickton, who may have killed as many as 49 women from 1991 until he was finally arrested in 2002.




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

Updated: August 21, 2016