You've (Not) Come a Long Way Baby

Remember the Virginia Slims cigarette advertisements featuring juxtaposed images of “old-fashioned” and “modern” women along with the catchy slogan “you’ve come a long way baby”?  I couldn’t help but think about the irony of that slogan in light of the recent release of information on the investigation and trial of Robert William Pickton that have up to now been under a publication ban.  Our nation is – or, if it isn’t, it should be – recoiling in horror at the atrocities committed by Pickton and the utter care-less-ness of the police and justice system in handling this series of cases (local news; CTV; Globe and Mail). From all accounts, the police could have cared less about the drug-addict, sex-trade worker women who perished gruesomely at the hands of this man. According to recently-released information one woman barely escaped being murdered in 1997. She was picked up by Pickton in Vancouver’s downtown eastside and taken to his infamous pig farm where they had sex. Afterwards, he handcuffed her and tried to kill her by stabbing her. She managed to escape, sliced Pickton’s neck with a knife, and was able to make it to a hospital for treatment. Ironically, Pickton ended up in the same hospital where police confiscated his clothing, which was then locked up – and ‘forgotten’ – for years. This clothing apparently contained the DNA of two of Pickton’s other victims. When Pickton was finally arrested in 2002 and the woman told her story during the preliminary trial in 2003, the justice would not permit the testimony in the trial. The reasons for this vary: some reports indicate the judge said it did not relate to the six cases being tried (which was true); other reports say her drug-addled state made her an unreliable witness.  According to Globe and Mail report, the victim’s drug addiction was also the reason the charges of attempted murder and forcible confinement against Pickton were stayed.

Pickton’s victims were sex trade workers and many of them were First Nations women; that’s two strikes against them.  And drug addicts? That’s three strikes and they’re out. No one cared that women were disappearing pretty regularly on Vancouver’s east side. In the same warped logic of the Victorian social reformers that condemned harlots and whores as the dregs of society – a scourge that needed to be scoured from the social fabric – we still consider the work of the sex trade to be an expression of the individual’s soul. Plying their trade in sex in not what these women do to survive; it is what they are. And since they “insist” on performing their labour on the streets and in the alleys of Vancouver’s east side, instead of in posh clubs and resorts, these women truly must be the worst of the worst. And who will miss them when they’re gone?

Thankfully the families of these women missed them – all of them, including those whose murders will go unprosecuted. When the justice system and the rest of the world looked away, families remembered and continued to search for women whom they remembered as lively little girls with big dreams. The release of the gruesome details of the Pickton murders will be painful for these families who will have to relive again the loss of a daughter, a sister, a mother. The police have apologized to the families for their inaction and errors in investigating these cases. But will we learn from these horrors? Or are we doomed to relive the past again and again in some macabre cycle while we chant meaninglessly the mantra of equality and human rights?  If we’ve come a long way, baby, the details of this case reveal just how much further we have to go.

Last updated Aug. 5th, 2010 at 12:50pm by Robynne Healey