The story of Vancouver’s Missing Women is a big one. It spans several decades, multiple police jurisdictions and involves over sixty women.
Sadly, I knew twenty women who went missing from the streets of the Downtown Eastside. I met them while I worked at WISH (1998 – 2001) a drop-in centre for sex trade workers, housed in the back of the First United Church on East Hastings Street.
Wish Drop-in Centre & Ina Roelants
WISH is an acronym for Women’s Information & Safe House. Ina Roelants named the centre when she helped create it in 1982 with the help of the Anglican Diocese of New Westminster. Ina encouraged women to phone their families on a regular basis and thought some might hesitate to call home if the place they were calling from could be identified as a drop-in centre for sex trade workers.
A true champion of marginalized women, Ina operated WISH from 5:00 PM – 12:00 Midnight, five nights a week, for five years, taking home only $100 a month for her efforts. Ina died from cancer in 2005, leaving behind a legacy of support for street-entrenched women that remains unparalleled on the Downtown Eastside.
Early Reports of Vancouver’s Missing Women
In 1998 the Vancouver police began an investigation into forty cases of missing women. Many of these missing women were known to police as drug-addicted, sex trade workers from the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood. Eventually, this investigation would find one woman alive, two others were confirmed deceased, and one was labeled as an unidentified overdose victim by the local hospital. This left thirty-six missing women still unaccounted for.
Early Missing Women Trends
In the late 1990’s there was a sharp increase in the number of women who were going missing. Vancouver police responded by assigning a second officer to its missing persons’ section. In 1999, the department formed the Missing Women’s Review Team amid growing public pressure over the disappearances of so many women. Many feared a serial killer was stalking Vancouver’s low track prostitutes. The women who frequented the drop-in centre often shared their missing women theories with me.
The Vancouver Mayor’s Response to the Missing Women
The Vancouver Mayor’s Office tried to assure Vancouverites during regular press conferences that they were doing everything possible to solve the case of the missing women. A $100,000 reward was even offered for information leading to the arrest of those responsible. The Vancouver Sun published an article that confirmed the fears that many frontline workers understood all too well. The city’s investigation into its missing women had been assigned to inexperienced and overworked staff that didn’t have the time or resources to do a thorough job.
The Discovery of a Serial Killer
In 2001 the RCMP and the Vancouver Police joined forces to investigate the missing women files. But as time passed more names of missing women were added to the list bringing the total to fifty. Then on February 5, 2002, RCMP officers, accompanied by the Missing Women Task Force gained access to a pig farm in Port Coquitlam on a firearms warrant. A suspect, Robert Pickton, a pig farmer from Port Coquitlam was arrested.
Confession to an Undercover Officer
Robert Pickton confessed to an undercover office while in a holding cell to murdering 49 women from the Downtown Eastside. This revelation sent shockwaves throughout Canada. Pickon’s murder spree had gone unnoticed by law enforcement for years. Soon forensic archeologists were dispatched to sift through every square inch of dirt on his property, unveiling evidence that allowed investigators to patch together the story of his chilling murder spree.
Pickton’s Defence Team
Robert Pickton’s legal defense team was comprised of more than a dozen senior lawyers and was funded by Canadian taxpayers. Despite facing overwhelming odds and public outrage, Pickton’s defense spared no expense in attempting to secure an acquittal for their client. By contrast, Crown prosecutors led by Mike Petrie, Daryll Previt, and John N. Ahern worked tirelessly for six grueling years, meticulously building their case to seek justice for the victims and their families. Their unwavering dedication and commitment to securing a murder conviction against Pickton demonstrated the resolve of Canada’s justice system to hold perpetrators of heinous crimes accountable for their actions, regardless of their resources or influence.
The Trial of Robert Pickton
The trial of Robert Pickton began on January 8, 2007, in New Westminster’s Supreme Court. Charged with killing 27 women, Pickton pleaded not guilty. The judge agreed to motions put forth by Pickton’s defense team to have the charges severed. Pickton was then tried for the murders of only six women. As I knew five of the six women Pickton would stand trial for murdering, I was subpoenaed by the Crown and gave testimony on May 11, 2007.
After a year, in what became known as Canada’s largest and most expensive criminal trial, on December 11, 2007, Robert Pickton was handed a life sentence with no eligibility for parole for 25 years.
Elaine Allan, BA, MBA
Vancouver, BC, Canada