VANCOUVER – Bias against the poor, drug-addicted sex workers in Vancouver’s troubled Downtown Eastside led to a series of failures that allowed serial killer Robert Pickton to spend years hunting his victims unimpeded by police, a public inquiry has found.
Commissioner Wally Oppal’s 1,448-page final report, released Monday, chronicles years of mistakes that allowed Pickton to lure dozens of women to his farm in Port Coquitlam, B.C., with little interference from police and even less concern from the public.
He noted that even referring to Pickton’s victims as missing women is a misnomer.
“The women didn’t go missing. They aren’t just absent, they didn’t just go away. They were taken.”
In a news conference interrupted by applause, jeers, drumming and aboriginal singing, Oppal appealed to the general public, asking people to imagine what life was like for Pickton’s victims and other women like them, even before they crossed paths with Pickton.
He said they were treated — in life and in death — as nobodies.
“I ask you to imagine how you would feel, put yourself in the shoes of one of the missing and murdered women and think how it would feel if you were dismissed, considered unworthy of attention by the majority of the people in your city.
“What if you were made to feel invisible, unworthy?”
Oppal’s report found the problems with the investigation included structural ones — poor co-operation between Vancouver police and the RCMP, for example. But many were a result of something far more insidious and difficult to cure.
“Would the response of the Vancouver police and the public have been any different if these women had come from the west side of town? I think the answer is clear,” Oppal told The Canadian Press in an interview discussing his report’s conclusions.
“There was an institutional, systemic bias against the women. … They were poor, they were aboriginal, they were drug addicted and they were not taken seriously.”
Those biases were compounded by a lack of leadership among Vancouver police and the RCMP, he said.
Still, Oppal concluded the effects of that bias were not intentional, leading to systemic failures rather than a conscious decision to ignore Vancouver’s missing women.
Oppal spent eight months hearing evidence about the failed investigations by the Vancouver police and the Port Coquitlam RCMP into reports of missing sex workers and evidence that Pickton was a suspect.
The result is a highly critical document that describes parallel yet largely separate investigations that were each plagued by indifference and poor police work.
Oppal made 63 recommendations, including a regional police force for the greater Vancouver region, immediate improvements to services for sex workers, changes to police policies to ensure they reflect the needs of the impoverished women in the Downtown Eastside and more services for sex workers and other vulnerable women.
He also said the B.C. government should appoint an aboriginal elder to oversee the implementation of his recommendations and to help draft formal apologies to begin a reconciliation process with families and the community. And he recommended the province set up a compensation fund for families of missing and murdered women.
But it’s not clear whether Oppal’s report will satisfy his many critics, including relatives of missing and murdered women and numerous advocacy groups, which have denounced the inquiry as a flawed process that ignored the voices of the women it was created to protect and put too much emphasis on police.
There were reports of missing women in Vancouver dating back to the 1980s, and those disappearances increased dramatically in the mid-1990s.
When relatives and friends attempted to report those women missing, officers and staff with the Vancouver police department told them the women were transient drug addicts who weren’t in any trouble or were simply on vacation, Oppal’s report noted, referring back to testimony from families at the inquiry.
The first major investigative blunders began in 1997, when Pickton attacked a sex worker at his farm, leaving her with injuries so severe that she died twice on the operating table. Pickton was charged with attempted murder, but prosecutors eventually stayed the case, after which 19 more women later connected to Pickton’s farm disappeared.
Following the attack, police seized clothing and other material from Pickton’s property, which, when tested following his arrest in 2002, revealed the DNA of two missing sex workers.
Among the many mistakes by police, Oppal’s report counted the failure to test that evidence or follow up with additional interviews with the victim, who told officers after her attack that she believed other sex workers had been to Pickton’s property.
Oppal also said the fact that Pickton had been accused of trying to kill a sex worker in 1997 should have served as a massive red flag for investigators later, especially when several informants implicated Pickton in the disappearances of other women from the Downtown Eastside.
“That began a litany of failures,” Oppal said in the interview. “The investigations of missing and murdered women in the province of B.C. was subject to colossal police failures.”
Those failures quickly multiplied.
Oppal’s report noted that senior officials within the Vancouver police were reluctant to accept the possibility a serial killer was at work in the city, dismissing evidence from their own officers, including geographic profiler Kim Rossmo, who floated the theory in 1998. The department handed the investigation to a single officer who joined the force’s missing person unit with no homicide experience and no support from her bosses.
In Port Coquitlam, RCMP officers allowed their investigation to lay dormant for months at a time, and when they did work on the file, that work was riddled with errors.
When Mounties attempted to talk to Pickton in late 1999, they granted his brother’s request to wait until the rainy season when he wouldn’t be so busy on the farm. Eventually, Pickton was interviewed, but it was poorly handled by officers without any interrogation training.
The Mounties and Vancouver police started an RCMP-led missing women task force in 2001, but its investigators operated under the mistaken belief that women were no longer disappearing.
Vancouver police and the RCMP have issued public apologies for not doing enough to stop Pickton, and the Vancouver police conducted a self-critical internal review that was made public.
However, both tempered those apologies by insisting officers they did the best they could with the information they had, and both have spent considerable time blaming each other.
That amounted to “unseemly finger-pointing,” said Oppal. “It took place in the inquiry.”
Oppal’s recommendations include a regional police force for greater Vancouver — an area with several municipal forces and RCMP detachments that operate independently from one another. B.C. recently signed a 20-year deal with the Mounties, as did the municipalities that use the RCMP as their local police force.
He called for more services for sex workers and other vulnerable women, including immediate funding for a 24-hour drop-in centre in the Downtown Eastside for sex workers and a transportation service for women and girls who would otherwise resort to hitchhiking along the so-called Highway of Tears in the province’s north.
The recommendations included changes to missing person policies used by police, new training for officers and creating “equality audits” to measure police forces’ policies for protecting sex workers and vulnerable women.
He also called for changes to policies used by Crown counsel in cases that include vulnerable women, particularly those involving vulnerable women as witnesses.
Oppal’s inquiry, which wrapped up formal hearings in June, faced intense criticism from its inception.
His opponents were many, including the families of missing women and many non-profit groups that work with and advocate for sex workers and drug addicts in the Downtown Eastside.
A long list of groups boycotted the hearings after the provincial government refused to give them funding to hire lawyers.