Sometimes it feels really good to say "I told you so." For advocates, activists and residents of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, this week is not one of those times. Commissioner Wally Oppal released his report on the Pickton Inquiry in British Columbia this week and said, very publicly, what advocates and individuals in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver have known for years.
He was clear that a systemic bias towards women in poverty in this stigmatized area allowed Robert Pickton to take and murder 49 women over many years and under the noses of police. The women were called "missing" when they were, in fact, taken and murdered. The public outcry of those who knew what was going on, who knew that women in the community faced violence daily and needed protection, was not enough to create the action needed to stop it.
I knew what was going on. I knew because I worked in the Downtown Eastside while the massive search of Pickton's farm was being conducted. Yet every week, social service agencies in the Downtown Eastside received "Bad Date" lists. These were two- or three-page listings of the horrific experiences of sex trade workers in the neighbourhood. The lists gave descriptions of the men who perpetrated this violence.
The lists gave me nightmares. Robert Pickton was in jail, but still there were weekly reports of "incidents" happening to vulnerable women living in poverty, though many were not being investigated in any meaningful way.
Yet, many of the comments in the media regarding Oppal's report say "well, we know." It is true that we know women in poverty, and especially aboriginal women living in poverty, are more likely to experience violence than anyone else in Canada. According to the Native Women's Association of Canada, there are at least 75 aboriginal women who have "gone missing" in Manitoba in the past two decades.
In 2009, Statistics Canada found that violent victimization of aboriginal women was almost three times higher than the national average.
When I, along with my colleagues Suzanne Gessler and Ian Skelton, conducted the Winnipeg Street Health Report (2010), women who were experiencing homelessness told us that they regularly experienced violence. One in five had experienced sexual assault in the past year. Almost half, 43 per cent, had experienced physical assault. One woman told me, "I've had really bad, bad things happen to me. And (my social assistance worker) thinks it's only me that it happens to. And it's like, everyone in this system that's getting robbed, beat, raped, on and on and on." Another woman said, "They know all about the things we're telling you, but they don't budge." Over 70 per cent of women experiencing absolute homelessness in Winnipeg are aboriginal.
Women who live in poverty are more likely to experience violence than other women in Winnipeg. Women who do not have a home know that they are at risk of being one of those faces in the newspaper. We, as a society, know it too.
In British Columbia, there are slow and seemingly reluctant changes taking place that might prevent some deaths. Until there are real changes that address poverty and homelessness, and there is recognition of the sexism and racism involved in the violence, those "Bad Date" lists will continue to be handed out weekly in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.
In Manitoba, it is abundantly clear that poverty and social exclusion, linked with sexism, racism and classism, are the real reasons that the majority of those being taken and being murdered are aboriginal women. Until we act on that knowledge, women who are taken will continue to be labelled as "missing." Until we do what we know is right, "I told you so" will bring little relief.
Christina Maes Nino is a policy and program analyst with the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg.