By Stevie Cameron. Knopf Canada, 260 pp, $24.95, softcover
It's hard to understand exactly why Stevie Cameron has written The Pickton File, the first book-length look at the case of alleged serial killer Robert William Pickton. I don't mean that Cameron's a strange choice. An investigative journalist of long standing, she explains her decision to take a break from busting highflying politicians (On the Take), lawyers (Blue Trust), and businessmen (The Last Amigo) in the opening pages: "I was quite frankly sick of the same old frauds, the same corrupt politicians trying the same old scams, almost always successfully."
No, what's odd is the timing of the book. Pickton is still very much before the courts–five years and probably $100 million dollars into the largest criminal case our country has seen. But because of a number of publication bans in place since Pickton entered custody way back in 2002, Cameron (and other journalists, family members of the victims, and interested parties) have been unable to report on anything they hear in court. As she makes clear, these bans held through both the preliminary trial (to ensure the case was triable) and the voir dire (when the defence attempts to limit the Crown's evidence). Only now that the case is under way are we, the public, hearing specific, horrifying details surrounding Pickton, his brother Dave, Gina Houston, Pat Casanova, and many others.
Cameron has not, however, been idle. Her book gives the back story on the 26 women named in the two sets of charges Pickton faces. Through research and personal anecdote, she introduces readers to the Downtown Eastside (to her credit, with compassion and accuracy) as well as to Pickton's family and neighbourhood. And she's not shy about criticizing the Vancouver Police for seemingly ignoring the women's disappearances. (Bear in mind that Jamie Graham, the chief constable who came in for damage control in 2002, is Cameron's cousin.)
Part of this case's overwhelming quality–apart from the repulsive nature of the murders–has always been its scale. The Crown disclosed over 500,000 pages of documents. The number of lawyers, police, and experts at work is staggering. The farm itself became the largest crime scene in Canada's history, its 16 acres hand-screened in search of bone fragments and other evidence. Cameron writes that though she appreciates the diligence, "I began to feel as if we were being choked with numbers, statistics and little fact nuggets. I wouldn't say, exactly, that the information was spin, but it was so far from so many important issues that it began to worry me. All the public relations bustle, the steady torrent of numbers, couldn't stop people from asking how this had happened in the first place."
Cameron lived in Vancouver part-time beginning in 2002 in order to cover and contextualize the trial. There must be hundreds of observations she's got squirrelled away in her notebooks, waiting for the publication ban to be lifted. She says she's competitive and hates to be scooped; perhaps The Pickton File was meant to show she's been working all this time, and clearly, she has. But the real stories–what happened on that farm; how so many prostitutes' DNA and personal effects made their way there; and how the police and the RCMP managed to ignore the mounting disappearances–must wait for the conclusion of the trials. Only then can Cameron's second volume (tentatively named The Pig Farm) put The Pickton File to rest.