Sunday, September 12, 2010

On The Farm, Robert William Pickton and the Tragic Story of Vancouver’s Missing Women

by Stevie Cameron (Knopf Canada, August 20, 2010: 768 pages)

With the Pickton serial murder case no longer under appeal, the publication ban is off, and Knopf Canada has released Stevie Cameron's book about the case. A government investigation of the handling of the case has now been promised. Cameron is best known for her investigative books about political corruption in Canada. One of the first to read and review On the Farm is Lee Lakeman. Here is her review:

In On The Farm, Robert Pickton and the Tragic Story of Vancouver’s Missing and Murdered Women, Stevie Cameron relays many details of the conviction of Robert Pickton for murdering and butchering six women and the likelihood that he killed fifty: poor, mostly prostituted, women, one third of whom were Aboriginal. She catalogues a decade of data into one readable narrative that some will see as encyclopedic, though it relies almost totally on the official versions, constructed by the police, the courts, the commercial media, local governments and the harm reduction networks involved.

Cameron includes simple biographies from the hierarchy of characters who usually define these issues and authorize these versions: mostly johns, pimps, wife beaters, boyfriends, sugar daddies, rapists, prosecutors, defense lawyers, handlers, reporters, police and politicians and those charged by the state or community services as ‘victim assistance’ or ‘harm reduction” workers to destitute women. Of Pickton, we get the cliché: he had a horrible mother and childhood and he is motivated by revenge against a prostitute he described as thieving and dangerous. Cameron seems not to notice the sex bias. She contradicts no authority.

Some compassion for individuals at risk or under pressure warms the bare facts but chafes against her over abundant regard for the professional (class) credentials of the hundreds activated after women are harmed or dead. We get many of their cv’s. But their credentials would not have saved us. Throughout, she seems to accept the current social relations that lead us to this colossal legal and social failure. No substantial investigative reporting here only those admissions that authorities have already packaged into their next demand (as in the 2005 Vancouver Police Review that insists it would all be over if we had a regional police force and a nicer attitude to “sex workers”). It is as though the material racism, class biases and sex discrimination are solved.

She reminds us that the murdered women were trapped but she understands that trap as the personal mistake they made of choosing boyfriends and husbands that introduced them to vicious drugs and the mistake they made of getting into the killer’s car. The violence, poverty and racism they suffered previously, the refusal of authorities to interfere with the men who preceded him or with Pickton’s pre murderous activity goes unconnected. She concludes only that “we do not know if women are safer”.

Women suffer hideous abuse including prostitution, disappear and die at the hands of men every year in every major city in Canada. Aboriginal women remain especially vulnerable. Women live without adequate incomes, social services or advocacy. The criminal law is applied in a discriminatory fashion that sustains male violence. The statistics are not even disputed anymore. But that hierarchical status quo maintains hundreds if not thousands of women in prostituted squalor and binds together three groups of women: Pickton’s dead, those still prostituted, and millions of other women in Canada. They are bound into a disadvantaged class that lacks adequate social and legal intervention, documentation or protection from violence against women. Cameron’s narrative, absent as it is of any other stated intention, upholds an unacceptable status quo in which fifty women or more went to their deaths.

No experts on the equality obligations of states to women, no police civilian oversight experts or media monitors or Aboriginal women or anti-violence feminists are consulted interviewed or quoted for expertise. Is there no need to change that hierarchy?

Nor did Stevie Cameron give voice to a single escaped victim although she does relay two second hand stories of the anonymous women she calls Jane Doe and Sandra Gail Ringwald. The first is a name given to half a skull found in a local slough in 1995 that leaves us to worry how long ago Pickton began killing. The second is the story of a woman who survived in 1997, reported Pickton to authorities, but was left to protect herself from further violence. Case dismissed. The attempt to murder her never did result in a case, even of solicitation. Eliminating her evidence from the Pickton murder case accounting for the missing women prevented his conviction of first degree murder by blinding the court to the extent of his evil planning.

The book confirms the mind-numbing bigotry and ignorance of individuals with the criminal justice system but more importantly, the common ideology underpinning our institutions and their functionaries: women are not trusted as victims or witnesses, are deemed unreliable, exaggerating their plight and in themselves dangerous, unworthy of the protection of law. Poverty is constructed as individual responsibility separate from race and sex. In praising tiny accommodations and kindnesses (like the lunch passes for those at court or the tent supplied by the police so the families could see the killing fields) and in refusing to rage against the status quo, the book seems to accept the steady application of social and legal policy that replicates these deadly horrors over and over again.

Prostitution remains unchallenged as an activity of men as though women don’t mind and are not at risk or harmed. Like most women’s legal and social complaints of men’s sexual violence, prostitution is not treated like a serious crime. Only weeks after an apologetic review of police failures in the Pickton case, the new police chief, challenged to explain a 20% increase in sexual assault cases excused his force by saying the cases were not “aggravated by violence” as though he didn’t know that all sexual assault was against the law and a serious transgression of the collective rights of women.

Almost all the women victimized by Pickton first suffered criminal beatings, assaults and sexual exploitation at the hands of other men, assaults either from fathers or step- fathers, husbands, boyfriends, or pimps, assaults that should have been prevented and went unpunished, that rendered the women broken and vulnerable to this deadly predator. To three women he was a “sugar daddy” who paid for wife-like duties then threatened with violence if not obeyed. Those women entered Wish Drop In and “low barrier shelters” where prostitution is talked about as a job and successfully they solicited more vulnerable women to “service” Pickton. Of these, many were disabled physically and mentally. Some were not in a state to give consent to anything.

Uncontested too is that he was known as an “ordinary john”. In spite of the law, unimpeded by police, social workers or hotel staff, Pickton solicited women on the street, in the bars where he was known and through pimps in the downtown eastside ghetto. It is likely he solicited too for the men around him at his brother’s Piggy’s Palace, in the butchery, for the truckers he employed, for the Hells Angels across the street. Such facts should give chills to those promoting a laissez fair attitude to the sex industry.

Virtually all workers against violence against women know the ongoing systemic failure to protect women from the men who abuse them including those women who offer themselves as complainants and witnesses. The failure to properly investigate, prosecute and convict, insulated Pickton in the 1997 events that Cameron tells of Ringwald. That woman, whose consent was impaired by drugs, was solicited in Vancouver, confined in Pickton’s house in Coquitlam, sexually assaulted if not raped, beaten and threatened with death. She was stabbed when she defended herself with a knife from his kitchen and although badly bleeding managed to run across the street nearly nude and still in a handcuff. She was rescued by a passing couple and hospitalized. She told. Police retrieved the key to the handcuffs from his pocket. Those in the criminal justice system judged her inadequate and themselves as helpless. They abandoned her and the case. Pickton disintegrated over the decade into his life as serial killer convicted of murdering six women, confessing to killing 49 and dreaming of killing 75. #

Lee Lakeman is a longtime Canadian frontline worker and activist, best known for her work with the Canadian Association of Sexual Assault Centres and Vancouver Rape Relief and Women's Shelter.

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