A CBC podcast delves into unsolved deaths of trans women in Toronto

In Uncover: The Village, trans activists spring into action following police failures in the cases of Alloura Wells and Cassandra Do

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      Every year during Pride Weekend, Toronto's 519 Community Centre throws a huge, four-day party featuring international DJs and drag queens.

      Last year, a smaller affair took, and a group of trans women from Trans Pride Toronto (TPT) gathered in a park, as the pandemic forced Pride festivities to shift online.

      “It was actually great that trans women who are homeless could celebrate Pride for the first time because most often the 519 is usually blocked off,” Monica Forrester explains. Forrester (pictured above) is TPT’s founder and the program and outreach coordinator for Maggie’s Toronto Sex Workers Action Project. “This was their only Wellesley Pride where they didn’t feel like an an outsider or policed out.”

      TPT has made the park a base in the past year, hosting community meet-and-greets and giving out hot dinners, PPE, clothing, and hygiene supplies to vulnerable trans and two-spirit people, including sex workers who’ve lost gigs during the pandemic.

      Forrester launched the grassroots agency in 2004 after leaving a job with a mainstream social agency. Despite the increased visibility for transgender people in the media recently, she says TPT doesn’t receive a lot of funding since donors view her as “unestablished”.

      “Trans and two-spirit people are still not getting access to proper health care and housing,” she says. “We are more visible, but things haven’t changed in a sense of trans people’s overall health and well-being.”

      This month, her advocacy work is getting a signal boost across Canada in the form of investigative journalist Justin Ling’s CBC podcast Uncover: The Village, which premiered on June 23. The show tackles police inaction on missing and murdered trans women, the decriminalization of sex work, and the conflicting views on police reforms.

      Season One recounted the investigation into serial killer Bruce McArthur, and Season Two focuses on the deaths of two local trans women, Alloura Wells and Cassandra Do, whose cases remain unsolved. Forrester is a major voice in the five-episode podcast, having galvanized media attention and rallied community to search for Wells, her friend, in the fall of 2017.

      The Village takes listeners into the lives of Wells and Do, interviewing friends and family to reveal new details that created more complete portraits of the lives lost. It also explores the relationship between the LGBT+ community in Toronto and the police, and the community’s desire for officers to properly investigate violence against trans women while not creating further harm through over-policing.

      Do, a sex worker, was found dead in the bathtub of her apartment in August 2003. Police later determined she had been sexually assaulted and strangled to death. Despite DNA at the crime scene linking Do’s killer to a suspect from a sexual assault of another sex worker in 1997, her murder remains unsolved.

      “Here’s a woman who was working as a nurse’s aide when she started transitioning, was fired because she was trans, fought back against her employer and led a one-woman protest against her employer’s transphobic attitudes,” Ling says. “She proceeded to self-finance her own transition, especially at a time when transitioning was incredibly difficult and incredibly expensive.

      “[She was a woman] who did sex work because there wasn’t a lot of other opportunities available to trans women, but [she] also was enormously safe, who used magazines like NOW to advertise…who by all accounts was incredibly good at screening her clients.”

      When Wells stopped posting on Facebook in June 2017, her friends and family began to worry. A month later, a hiker discovered the decomposed body of a trans woman in the Rosedale ravine and reported it to police, but officers did not notify anyone that remains had been found.

      Police initially did not take Wells’s father seriously when he tried to file a missing persons report in November. By the time he succeeded in reporting his daughter missing later that month, Forrester had gone to the media, blasting police indifference and leading a community search.

      Meanwhile, the hiker saw Forrester on the news and forwarded her an email she had initially sent to the 519 in August notifying the community centre that police had yet to identify the body of a trans woman. The centre did not notify the public that the body of a trans woman had been found. Police identified the body as Alloura Wells on November 30.

      The 519’s executive director would later publicly apologize and then-police chief Mark Saunders personally apologized to Wells’s father. But the case remains unsolved.

      “That was a pivoting moment for myself as an individual, as a trans woman of colour. I was the one to mobilize community,” Forrester says. “We had to take it upon ourselves as a community to find answers, to find our sister that was missing, to bring accountability to the police and other agencies that knew that she was found but did nothing.

      “We see a lot of groups getting money for trans programs but when it comes to advocacy and standing up for the rights of trans people they’re not doing that work.”

      Stalling on sex work decriminalization

      Wells’s case is often brought up in the context of police failures in the McArthur investigation, but Ling—who wrote the book Missing From The Village: The Story Of Serial Killer Bruce McArthur, The Search For Justice, And The System That Failed Toronto’s Queer Community—felt her death needed more attention than it has received to date.

      He believes that if Do and Wells were cisgender women, the cases would have been taken more seriously—or even solved.

      “There are massive problems in the police investigation, a complete failure and unwillingness to cooperate with the community, and a total reluctance bordering on hostility,” he says of the Wells case.

      Though he notes the Do and Wells cases are different in many ways, including the way officers handled each investigation, the message to trans women in Toronto ended up being same.

      “You can’t even expect that if you die mysteriously, police will interview everyone relevant,” Ling says. “You can’t expect that the media will keep up pressure on it for as long as required. You just can’t expect any of those things.”

      Unlike in Season One of The Village, Ling includes what he describes as a “call to action” at the end of the season, urging Ottawa to “fucking do something” about Canada’s prostitution laws. Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government passed the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act (PCEPA) in 2014, which the opposition parties opposed. On the campaign trail six years ago, Justin Trudeau promised to review the laws, but nothing has happened.

      Sex workers accuse the feds of stalling reforms and failing to take their safety seriously, and have called for decriminalization. In March, an alliance of 25 sex worker rights groups launched a constitutional challenge against PCEPA in Ontario Superior Court. The notice of application seeks to strike down several prohibitions, arguing the laws violate the constitutional rights of sex workers.

      “At the end of the day I’m still a journalist. I’m not necessarily looking to lobby or be an activist,” says Ling. “But I think when it comes to Canada’s prostitution laws, there’s no excuse for the foot dragging and intransigence.”

      Samuel Engelking

      Underprotected and overpoliced

      In season 2, Ling also explores police reform proposals, as well as the demands to defund and abolish the police. The podcast will spend a lot of time on the independent review into the Toronto Police’s handling of missing-persons cases in the gay village, including Wells and the eight men serial McArthur pled guilty to murdering in 2018.

      Former judge Gloria Epstein wrote in the report that systemic and “overt” bias led to police missteps, including victims from marginalized communities receiving less priority. She noted that officers had stereotypical ideas and misconceptions about LGBT+ people that impeded investigations and fostered mistrust among the community.

      Ling says Epstein’s report was “fantastic”, but believes Toronto police are deluding themselves if they think simply ticking off boxes based on Epstein’s recommendations will engender trust among trans people.

      “It gave police a very specific set of tools on how to fix a bunch of very broken and not working aspects of policing. But it also kind of gave space for the community to ask for more and push for more because the terms of reference for the inquiry were very limited,” he says.

      The scope of the Epstein review was on missing person cases, not the decriminalization of sex work or an end to policing around drug possession.

      Toronto Police Chief James Ramer vowed to “properly resource” missing persons investigations following the release of the report. But when Ling asked during an April 13 press conference how police will respond to concerns that queer people, trans people, and sex workers are “overpoliced”, Ramer said the force is moving toward using a “public health lens” when it comes to drug offences instead criminal enforcement.

      “I think they’re setting themselves up to delude themselves into thinking everything’s great now,” Ling says. “The community wants murders to get solved, but fundamentally they also want to be free from overpolicing. They don’t want to have to be stopped and frisked. They don’t want to get harassed or have checks done on them because they’re sex workers. They don’t want to face more drug possession charges, and so on.

      “Until you end that over-policing element, the relationship is not going to be fixed,” he adds. “The Epstein report lays out very clearly that the issue is on over-policing and under-protecting. I think the Epstein report does a great job of talking about the under-protection part, but it wasn’t designed to handle the over-policing part. Until the Toronto Police Service addresses that, the relationship is not going to be fixed. And the community knows that.”

      New episodes of Uncover: The Village air Wednesdays on CBC Podcasts through July 21.