Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Memorial a tribute to lost women

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It was the summer of 2009, while seated across from him in his office, that I told then-justice minister Dave Chomiak many people believed there was a serial killer at work in Winnipeg; at which point he told me what the chief of the Winnipeg Police Service and the head of the Manitoba RCMP had told him.

"I have been convinced by police that the evidence does not point to that," Chomiak said.

By the time I left his office though, Chomiak wasn't so convinced.

He, like many -- including the former Vancouver police officer who saw the hand of a serial killer at work long before Robert Pickton was arrested -- wondered how at least one serial killer couldn't be at work in Winnipeg.

A city where nearly 50 missing women, children and transgender Winnipeg sex-trade workers had been murdered or gone missing over the previous 26 years.

Most of them aboriginal.

It took three more years and at least three more murdered young aboriginal women who are said to be connected with the sex-trade industry.

But Winnipeg police Chief Keith McCaskill now believes there is a serial killer. On Monday, city police announced they had charged 52-year-old Shawn Cameron Lamb with the slayings of three women.

Although, even before that, Tanya Jane Nepinak, Lorna Blacksmith and Carolyn Marie Sinclair had qualified for a memorial garden like no other in Winnipeg.

It was to this sacred place -- this cedar-sheltered memorial garden on Sutherland Avenue, just off Main Street -- that I went Monday afternoon to pay my respects to all the women from that neighbourhood who have died violently.

Or simply disappeared.

And it was there in the heat of the late afternoon -- on the so-called low track -- that I met "Jane," as she wants to be called. She's a working "girl" who said she had laid a stone on one of the circular paths where lilies -- some blood-red -- bloom in memory of the 12 women Jane says she has lost over the 15 years she has survived.

But barely survived.

Jane recalled the late night a few years earlier when a john stabbed her in the stomach.

"I had my guard down," she said as she pulled up her shirt to show me the slashing scar that's testimony to where her guts had fallen out.

It's a fact Nathan Rieger later confirmed when we talked.

Rieger is part of the pastoral team at Vineyard Church, where Jane crawled to at 5 a.m. that early October night, and was taken in. The church is located in a century-old warehouse at Main and Sutherland, which backs onto the memorial garden.

The Vineyard Memorial Garden, as it is formally called. Rieger and some friends started it to remember first 20, and now 24, murdered and missing neighbourhood women. At first, Rieger recalled Monday, it was murdered sex-trade workers who were memorialized; now it's any woman from the area who dies violently.

It was living sex-trade workers who inspired Rieger because they kept coming to him and asking if he could drive them to cemeteries where their friends were buried. And it was these same women -- women like Jane -- who helped build the memorial garden.

Stone by stone. Name by name. Tear after tear.

It was built in way that also honoured aboriginal tradition, and in a manner that allowed families and friends to have a place close by to grieve. The plaques to each woman still have to be put in place. So I asked Rieger when it would be finished.

"Never," he said.

I wondered, as I spoke with Jane, if her name would have been there if the Vineyard Church hadn't heard her calling for help and been there for her.

The answer seems obvious enough.

What doesn't, or didn't, is why police have been so guarded about acknowledging the possibility that a serial killer has been at work in Winnipeg over the years.

Late Monday afternoon, I spoke with Dave Chomiak over the phone.

He was waiting to board a plane back to Winnipeg at Toronto's Pearson International Airport and he hadn't heard the news that police had arrested a suspected serial killer.

"I'm stunned," Chomiak said. "Wow."

He was emotional and he had reason to be. It wasn't just that Chomiak chose three years ago to become unconvinced -- to listen to himself, and not to what police were telling him. He also chose to pay for more city police and RCMP to work on the murdered and missing files in the belief there just might be a serial killer out there. The task force that resulted may not have been directly responsible for Monday's arrest. Nevertheless, Dave Chomiak has learned something good cops already know.

"You never close your mind to anything."

Or, if I might add, your gut instincts.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 26, 2012 A4

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