Vancouver sex-trade workers await details of Pickton trial

Neal Hall, CanWest News Service
Published: Tuesday, January 16, 2007

VANCOUVER - Sex-trade workers and their advocates in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside are bracing for the start next week of Robert (Willie) Pickton's murder trial, and the evidence that will emerge about the women who disappeared from the neighbourhood.

Courtroom sketch of Robert Pickton, as he attends his first day on trial, for the murder of numerous missing women.

Special for The Vancouver Province/Art work by Jane Wolsak

''We have concerns about how it's going to affect the women,'' said Kate Gibson, executive director of the WISH Drop-in Centre for sex-trade workers.

She is concerned that 300 media have been accredited to cover the trial, including many international media, and fears the electronic media will blitz the area, trying to interview women working the streets in the Downtown Eastside.

''Just the thought of it is numbing - who may or may not come to our neighbourhood,'' Gibson said.

WISH, which stands for Women's Information Safe Haven, is exploring the possibility of preparing video material for out-of-town TV stations to spare area residents from the intrusive nature of electronic media.

''We're working on that,'' Gibson said. ''The plan is to reduce the impact in that area.''

She said many sex-trade workers are still living the kind of lives the trial is expected to hear about - poverty, drug addiction and unstable housing - that cause women to turn to ''survival sex.'' Asked to define survival sex, Gibson said: ''Their options are pretty limited.''

She said many of the women still working the streets have memories of the 26 missing women Pickton is charged with killing.

''It's going to create fear and anxiety,'' Gibson said about how the trial will affect the women.

She said the drop-in centre, which has been operating for almost 20 years, attracts 100 to 150 a night for dinner. ''We think we see 400 different women.''

The centre provides meals, a safe space for sex-trade workers and issues a ''bad date'' sheet that includes descriptions of violent customers, their vehicles and partial licence plate numbers.

Rev. Ruth Wright, executive director of the First United Church Mission, is also worried about how the trial will affect people who knew the missing women.

''I've had a lot of conversations with women who said, 'I thought we had dealt with this,''' Wright said, referring to the emotional memories surrounding women going missing and the years of uncertainty and anxiety that followed.

''But every time there is a news story or every time there is a step closer to the trial, it all comes back,'' she said. ''I can relate to that because they continue to be in danger.''

Wright added: ''My biggest feeling of regret over this sort of thing happening is what it's doing to the survivors and how it brings back pictures. Even for me, there are huge pictures coming back of those women in my mind.''

One image she vividly recalls is of Sereena Abotsway, one of the missing women named in the six-count indictment against Pickton that goes to trial next Monday. She can still see Abotsway's joyful reaction when she received a stuffed toy bear at a Christmas event.

''I don't think I'll ever lose that image of her hugging that teddy bear,'' Wright said.

She recalled first meeting Abotsway when Wright came to the inner city church in 1995 as a theological intern. When she returned in 1997, she didn't recognize Abotsway, who had been badly beaten, she said.

''The reality is most of the people down here aren't beaten by people down here but from other parts of the city,'' she said, adding that many times she has seen sex-trade workers picked up by vans with child seats in the back.

Dave Dickson, a Vancouver police office who patrolled the area for more than 25 years and now works as the police department's civilian sex-trade liaison, said very little has changed in the Downtown Eastside over the years, despite millions being spent to solve the poverty and addiction problems that plague the neighbourhood.

''Personally, I don't see any improvement,'' he said. ''It's not getting any better.''

He said government officials need to ''take the bull by the horns'' and provide more treatment programs to get people off drugs and off the streets.

Until then, the women working the streets remain vulnerable to being used by men with violent tendencies.

''It seems to be the stomping grounds for every weirdo in the book down here,'' he said.

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Updated: August 21, 2016