On February 14, 2002, just weeks after the arrest of accused serial killer Robert Pickton, the annual Women’s Memorial March drew 700 people to the downtown core.
And according to event co-organizer Marlene George, the 2005 event still attracted 500. It began in 1991 to commemorate the death of a woman on Powell Street but took on extra significance as more women began disappearing from the Downtown Eastside. This year’s march will be equally poignant following grisly Crown court statements revealing that severed heads and limbs were found at the Port Coquitlam Pickton farm.
George works as community programmer at Carnegie Community Centre and, along with her “sisters” from the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre, was outside the New Westminster courthouse as the long-awaited trial began on January 22. Pickton, 57, is standing trial on six counts of murder and will be tried separately on a further 20 charges.
“It’s up to all the men to take care of the women and the lifegivers and not to let this [violence] happen,” George told the convened media driven under a slight canopy in Begbie Square as the rain reflected the sombre tone of the day.
Reta Blind, who works at the women’s centre, said First Nations culture had lost its “spirituality and healing”. Standing to the side and huddled under an umbrella, Blind’s colleague Carol Martin was furiously wiping away tears.
“It’s tough to be here,” Martin, victim-services worker at the centre, told the Georgia Straight. “I only just got down here, but this is really tough for me, because I knew some of these women. In the first week of December , we met with [Union of BC Indian Chiefs president] Grand Chief Stewart Phillip requesting that healing and wellness come back to our culture. The Four Pillars [strategy] does not heal the problem.”
After he watched the Crown prosecution’s and the defence’s opening statements, Ernie Crey, a Sto:lo community leader, left the courtroom. Crey’s sister Dawn went missing from the Downtown Eastside in 2001, and police confirmed in 2004 that her DNA had been found at the Pickton farm. Dawn is not one of the 26 women Pickton is accused of killing.
“Nearly half of the women that have vanished are aboriginal women,” Crey told the Straight. “And we all know that in British Columbia, it is the policies of the federal and provincial governments that have forced aboriginal people to live on postage-stamp reserves where there are no jobs, inadequate health care, and inadequate education. A lot of those people have voted with their feet and come to the city. If they come with a degree of drug dependency already and personal problems, it won’t be long before a number of them are on the streets, like my young sister.”
Crey said Canada’s drug laws still treat addiction as a “moral” issue rather than a health issue, and he wants to see that change.
New Westminster resident James Schultz, carrying a placard reading Bring Back Capital Punishment, echoed Crey.
“I know some of the women on the Downtown Eastside were drug-addicted or whatever,” Schultz told the Straight. “But we’ve got to see an improvement in social services, because I’ve seen a city [Vancouver] that was unacceptable 10 years ago become deplorable today.”
According to the GVRD’s 2005 report on homelessness and its homelessness count, the number of regionwide homeless swelled to 2,174 in 2005 from 1,121 in 2002.
The number of Natives was highest among the street homeless, as opposed to the sheltered homeless, with a count of 357 (or 34 percent) of the 1,042 total. The report also stated that there were proportionally more women among the aboriginal homeless population (35 percent) than among the non aboriginal homeless (27 percent.)