Disinterested authorities big part of problem: Aboriginal women at risk. (Feature Report).
Much as pedophiles discovered, and then passed the word, that residential schools were places where they could prey on Native children without worry of punishment, many observers agree that another breed of sexual predator has discovered that Native women, impoverished, marginalized, are fair game for abuse with little risk attached.
Dr. Kim Rossmo is a former Vancouver beat cop who went on to become a world famous expert on serial killers. He recently played a role in tracking the Beltway Sniper who terrorized Washington, D.C. for weeks.
Rossmo, the first police officer in Canada to earn a PhD, invented a geographic profiling system that enables police to dramatically reduce the number of possible suspects in a serial murder case. He was one of the first to realize that a serial killer was at work in the downtown eastside of Vancouver. Port Coquitlam pig farm owner Robert William Pickton is charged with the murder of 15 women, and is suspect in the disappearance of 59 others from the streets of Vancouver.
"I'll say on the record as someone with a PhD in criminology who studies serial murderers that it's well known that some predators have a preference for marginalized groups," Rossmo told Windspeaker during a phone interview on Nov. 18. "And in Canada, one of the marginalized groups are First Nations individuals, especially in Skid Row areas. IN the United States it can be inner city blacks or Skid Row men, sometimes people in the gay community, especially if the gay communities are not as well established as they are, say, in Vancouver or San Francisco. You know that happened with Jeffrey Dahmer in Milwaukee."
The numbers of dead Native women--or missing and feared dead-have reached frightening totals. One estimate exceeds 500 over the last 15 years. A number that large would merit the term epidemic, but many activists say that since it's Native women, no one in authority is sufficiently concerned at this point.
The most high profile example of this phenomenon is the Pickton case in which half of his alleged victims are Aboriginal. But in the north of British Columbia there is another example going largely unnoticed.
The entire community of Prince George--especially the women--is on edge, wondering what happened to six women who disappeared along Highway 16, now dubbed the "Highway of Tears." All but one of the victims are Aboriginal. Interestingly, the only case that prompted an enthusiastic police investigation, assisted by significant media coverage, was the disappearance of Nicole Hoare, a non-Native woman. It's been over a year since she disappeared and posters bearing her likeness can still be seen at every highway on-ramp and at other locations around town. Native people in the area believe the same kind of efforts should be directed at finding the other victims.
Cities throughout Western Canada have similar situations.
Author Warren Goulding believes there are several hundred Native women who are unaccounted for across the country. He said police sources quibble over the actual number, but all that shows is that nobody has bothered to find out for sure.
"The thing that was disturbing is that if it was 600, or if it was 300, nobody bothered to say 'Who are these people?' I don't think anybody really knows the number. Nobody's done much of a job of making an effort to find out just how serious the problem is. That's the big issue. There's still a great deal of indifference to missing Aboriginal women," he said.
Goulding's book Just Another Indian--A Serial Killer and Canada's Indifference follows convicted murderer John Crawford as he stalks the streets of Saskatoon.
The author believes the numbers add up to an epidemic of violence against Native women that is encouraged by social attitudes.
"When I first started looking at it, I thought there was something going on in Saskatchewan. But it seems to be a national problem," he said.
In Calgary, police refused to act when a Web site depicting nude photos of only Native women, degrading and racist to even the most jaded observer, was reported. Local sources recognized the women to be frequenters of the sleazy bars, called "hug and slugs" by their patrons, in the downtown core. Every kind of illicit good or service is available in or near these establishments, from illegal drugs of all sorts to the sex trade. A lot of prostitution and drug use occurs on or near the grounds of the world famous Calgary Stampede.
The Web site, entitled The Girls of Calgary in what appears to be a sarcastic reference to Playboy photo features with similar names, shows women on which life on the streets and serious addictions problems have taken their toll.
Windspeaker, using an untraceable e-mail account, attempted to engage the Web site operator in an electronic conversation over a period of two weeks. He did not respond.
When a concerned Native person in Calgary complained to the police, that person was told that it was not a criminal matter.
Detective Brad Martin of the Calgary police service's technological crimes unit responded to questions about that decision.
"For him to take a picture of an adult or near adult woman and post it on the Internet does not fall under the Criminal Code as an offense," he said. "When we deal with matters that are criminal in nature and we want to get something before the courts, what the Crowns all across the country would say to any officer is 'What's the likelihood of a conviction on this charge?' If there's no likelihood of conviction, then don't lay the charge because you're wasting time and money for things that are important where you may get a conviction. In fact, the only situations where the Crown will OK a charge is one where you have explicit sex with violence. It seems that people are still opposed to that. They're not opposed to explicit sex. They're not opposed to violence. But they're still opposed to explicit sex with violence and that's where Section 163 is used still."
Legal sources told this publication that the officers could launch an investigation based on Section 163 of the Criminal Code of Canada. Martin said that section is usually employed only in certain cases.
"Section 163 of the code is very broad and does cover things like corrupting the morals of a minor, which can be and still does get laid. Section 163.1 also deals with the child porn and child abuse laws which are still very much in use," he said. "Part of what we wrestle with every day is that social mores and what's acceptable today was not necessarily acceptable in times past. But we are not able to pursue it in criminal courts because we do not get convictions anymore for things that would have been convictions, say, 30 years ago.
We wrestle with that all the time and a lot of people have a problem with that. For example when I say a child of 14 years old can consent to have sex with a 35-year-old man, most right thinking people's response to that is: 'What! That's wrong.' And I agree. But it's law."
Asked if he thought the system needed to be adjusted to protect marginalized people, he responded in a way that many police endorse but many activists say is just not good enough.
"Because of the way our criminal laws are enacted or empowered, people who make some decisions fall through the cracks and they can't be saved from themselves, so to speak," he said. "The hard-ass attitude is 'You took your clothes off, lady, for this guy for whatever reason.' If I go and take my clothes off for a guy and he takes pictures of me then I've. got to be thinking somewhere down the road he may use them to suit his purposes and why did I allow him to do that? I'm the one that allowed him to do that. We've come across those situations lots where people are playing as men and women do and then the relationship breaks up and now those pictures are. on the net. We can't help them. Unfortunately, it doesn't fall within the police mandate. It's a civil matter."
Asked if he was at all worried that the Web site operator might be a sexual predator just starting to test the waters to see what he can get away with, the detective said it was possible but not necessarily probable.
"That's an unfortunate spin-off from, some of those things. But on the other hand, I can put you in touch with people who have all sorts of strange philias that you would not believe that go their lifetime and would never go any further than that," he said.
Cherry Kingsley is a former sex trade worker in Vancouver who has escaped from the life to become an advocate for the women and especially children still caught up in that dangerous world. She is a powerful public speaker who attacks judgmental attitudes directed towards people she sees as victims.
"Many famous serial murderers started 'practicing' on people in the sex trade. Clifford Olsen had kidnapped and raped a young woman in the sex trade who later identified him to police, but they did nothing. The same thing was true for Jeffery Dahmer... These men had been identified to police as violent sex offenders, but police did nothing until their crimes were so horrific the public would not. allow them to ignore it anymore. There are many stories like that," she said.
Kingsley and Senator Landon Pearson, Personal Representative of Prime Minister Jean Chretien to the Special Session on Children of the United Nations General Assembly in New York in September 2001, have worked together to try and change attitudes towards prostitution.
"Even to use the word 'child prostitute' is stereotyping. Stereotyping is an important part of this problem. You see someone on the street and the stereotype prevents you from seeing them as an exploited person," the Senator said.
She sees police indifference to be a big part of the problem.
"I would not be able to accuse any one particular person but you just have to let the facts stand for themselves. I mean, why aid it take so long for this large number of young women, the fact that they'd gone missing [from Vancouver], to be taken seriously?" Pearson asked.
Racism also is part of the equation.
"For anyone who's experienced in these issues, Aboriginal women are particularly vulnerable for a variety of reason but there's no question that there's some racism involved," she added.
Kingsley believes Goulding has underestimated the number of missing women.
"That number seems low. If you look at how many women are murdered, commit suicide, die from drug overdoses, die from disease, and go 'missing,' what you would have is a rate of death that would challenge almost any other circumstance. in the world, including war. If you sent 100 soldiers to war, and 100 children to the sex trade, more soldiers would and do come back alive than children. The point is, not many escape the sex trade. Life is' hard and they usually die in terrible ways," she said.
Rossmo believes that racial attitudes contribute to the high numbers of minorities who fall victim to violence.
"I was just in Chicago and there were two or three serial killers operating in the [mostly black populated] South Side at the same time and there just wasn't the same recognition," he said.
But the man the media calls a modem-day Sherlock Holmes agreed that poor people are more vulnerable to attack.
"Prostitutes generally are seen as a marginalized group. Many of these predators will attack prostitutes. But in Vancouver, it was interesting; we don't find a lot of these attacks in the upper tracks, the expensive prostitutes. The victims create some of their own vulnerability through alcohol, drugs and an unwillingness to talk to the police, and the offenders know this," he said. "These areas are different from middle class neighborhoods and sometimes it's hard for police to understand that, especially if the police come from middle class neighborhoods."
He agreed that attitudes have to change.
"Assuming once again that Pickton is guilty, he'll be locked up and that'll be the end of him. But that doesn't change the larger picture," Rossmo said.
Ernie Crey, a Cheam First Nation member, believes his younger sister Dawn was one of the victims who died at the Port Coquitlam pig farm.
"After the disappearances began way back in the 1980s, I was concerned about my younger sister Dawn. We're almost 10 years apart in age. I'm 53. She vanished off the streets around Nov. 1, 2000. Some of the women Mr. Pickton is facing charges of murder disappeared in '99 and late 2000. So she went missing during the time that some of the women that Pickton is alleged to have murdered disappeared," he said. "There are families out here of missing women who say they went to the police, and I don't have any reason to doubt them, as early as 1998 to warn them. When you do the count of how many women went missing from 1998 to last year, you have to wonder what the police were doing."
The Pickton farm is about 35 km east of the downtown eastside. Another property owned by the Pickton family was the site of an unlicensed after-hours bar or "booze can" called the Piggy Palace, located about half a kilometre from the farm down Dominion Rd.
Ernie Crey said he has been told by police that DNA evidence has allegedly been found on both properties and that the amount of evidence is so great it could swamp every forensics lab in Canada if it was sent out for analysis all at once. That means he and other families will have to wait months for confirmation about the fate of the their missing relatives.
Although he applauds the progress made by police recently, especially after the RCMP joined the investigation in 2000, he wants a public inquiry into the way the investigation was handled in its early days.
"If the Vancouver police really believe their entire approach to this was above reproach then they have no reason to fear an inquiry," he said, adding Vancouver's new mayor, Larry Campbell, has told him he supports the notion of a public inquiry.
Crey thinks Native leaders should apply political pressure and demand action to change the approach to a situation that is costing so many Native lives.
"This is something I've been trying to fathom. I've avoided saying anything because I didn't want the leaders of our communities to feel offended. But I'm surprised that First Nations chiefs and provincial leaders of Aboriginal organizations from coast to coast are not up in arms over this. Maybe it's difficult for them to wrestle with this. one. There are other priorities. But I just don't know why people aren't speaking out," he said.
"I don't want to leave you with the impression I'm trying to tear a piece of j skin off the Aboriginal leaders. I'm not. But it would really be great if they spoke out on this. It would encourage the families for one thing. The Aboriginal communities all across Canada, whether they're urban or reserves, are waiting-for the leaders to stand up and speak out on this issue."
Goulding believes Canadian society has to grow up and put away the outdated attitudes towards sex that allow decent people to turn a blind eye to the carnage in their communities.
"This isn't about sex. It's about exploitation. The thing we have to demand too is that the police just simply do their job and don't try to analyze it and don't decide that the women are there because they're junkies and somehow disposable. None of that matters," he said. "When they say they do look at them equally, I don't think they do. And I think we've got lots of evidence that the police departments in Western Canada don't look at it the same way. Vancouver's the most vivid example but, very anecdotally, I've had women in Saskatoon tell me the police just say 'Sorry, we can't help you' or 'What were you doing out on the street anyway?' I don't believe there are any women working the streets who want to be there. This is not a choice thing."
One moment in his investigation into the actions of serial killer John Crawford resonates in the author's memory.
"Crawford was charged with solicitation of a white undercover officer," he said. "He stated at that point that 'I won't make that mistake again.' John Crawford was out there doing what he did, but there were certainly other men who were selecting Aboriginal women who were either prostitutes or women they'd met in bars or whatever. The men seemed to know that this was an area that they could exploit. They knew perhaps that complaints from these women weren't taken seriously. I'm not really sure what went on, but there's an element out there that feeds on vulnerable women."
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|Date:||Dec 1, 2002|
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