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Pickton Trial: Who Were the Victims?

Media and police neglect the fully human lives of missing women.

By Heather Travis 4 Feb 2006 |
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As the preliminaries in the Pickton trial begin, some are putting both the police and the media on trial, as well, charging that both are guilty of neglect toward native women.

While the sexual, racial and social status of Robert "Willie" Pickton's alleged victims dominates their descriptions in the news - little to no consideration of their personal lives has made it into print.

That's the charge being leveled by CBC News: Sunday Associate Producer Audrey Huntley who has been documenting the stories of missing Canadian native women. She believes that news stations are continuing to make the same mistakes that Vancouver Police and RCMP did, deferring their investigation despite the evidence set before them.

Cross country pilgrimage

In a pilgrimage during the summer of 2000 from Toronto to Vancouver's Downtown Eastside - where she lived for three and a half years - Huntley investigated the stories of missing native women, as told by their families on aboriginal reserves. The end result is a video series - Traces of Missing Women.

Huntley has a personal attachment to the missing native women because she is of mixed native and settler ancestry. Before she joined the CBC, Huntley worked with aboriginal women in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside and has joined various activist groups that support aboriginal issues, including the Sisters in Spirit Campaign. Huntley's career has been dedicated to bringing attention to issues affecting aboriginal women.

"[Native families] most of the time felt that they hadn't got the attention [of officials]," said Huntley. "They were met with a lot of indifference on the part of the police or whomever they tried to get help from." She added that the media either just "didn't care" or reduced the victims to implicitly-guilty, drug-addicted prostitutes, even though some victims were not.

Huntley has devoted herself to highlighting Canada's history of "dealing with" natives; attempting to pull them in from the margins of society.

"I have a friend that went to them [police] in '98 and told them about the [Pickton] farm," Huntley said. "They said that she was a 'junkie ho'." And they ignored her testimony about the missing native women.

The media, too, has overlooked the women's stories out of disregard for their sources. News focus on the Pickton trial has skated over the fact that peers and family members were issuing warnings about Pickton almost 20 years before a police investigation was initiated in 1998.

That investigation, in tandem with a new "missing women task force," reviewed files of at least 40 women reported missing since 1971.

It was not until February 5, 2002 that Pickton's farm came under police scrutiny, however. Later that month, Robert Pickton was charged with two counts of first-degree murder.

Racial overtones

Why did the police ignore Pickton and missing women for so long? Because many of the women were social outcasts, says Huntley. The prevalence of drug addicts and prostitutes among the missing - not to mention native - rendered them inconsequential.

The racial undertones inherent in the Pickton trial beg the question: how much does race play into police and media treatment of natives?

In 1998, the same year the Pickton investigation began, media coverage of another murder case followed a similar trajectory.

Pamela George, a woman from the Ojibway nation, worked as a prostitute and was brutally murdered in Regina, Saskatchewan by two young, middle-class white men who had solicited her services.

The defense team argued that George was complicit in her own murder by virtue of her risky profession. The judge asked the jury to consider this "fact" in their deliberation.

As University of Toronto's Sociology and Equity Professor Sherene Razack writes in the article "Gendered Racial Violence and Spatialized Justice," the Pamela George case points to a systematic judicial failure to ensure equal treatment for natives.

Why media matters

With the judicial system and police distrusting the native community, the media may be the only outlet for a public call to arms to protect marginalized groups.

"All of us [society] bear some of the responsibility in this case," said Mary Lynn Young, journalist and professor at the University of British Columbia's School of Journalism, about the Pickton case. "It is our job as journalists to make these [women's] stories interesting."

At least one victim of racism has found reporters who will take that responsibility.

Myrna McCallum went to the police on January 23 of this year seeking help finding her runaway daughter, Alicia. She filed a missing person's report, but police did nothing until the media got wind of the case.

The Vancouver Sun published a story about the 14-year-old native girl's disappearance, and within days, Alicia had been returned home.

The media is now an accountability system for police and courts that may yet hold biases against native peoples. But whether the news media lives up to our new expectations is yet to be seen.

Obviously, families of the alleged victims of Robert Pickton are hoping the media is up to the challenge.

"It is a story that begs to be sensationalized," said Huntley about the Pickton trial. "[However], the women weren't just drug addicts and prostitutes, they were mothers and aunties." They need to be treated as such.

Audrey Huntley produced a feature- length story for CBC News: Sunday titled "Go Home Baby Girl" that documented the story of Norma (Lorna) George, a missing native woman, and her family's struggle to cope their loss and the uncertainty surrounding the cause for her death. It can be viewed on the CBC News: Sunday website.

Heather Travis is a graduate student in the University of British Columbia School of Journalism. This piece was first published on The Thunderbird UBC Online Journalism Review.  [Tyee]

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