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Rights + Justice

Vancouver's Victorian Murders

What will it take for the city and its police to reform their relationship with survival sex workers?

John MacLachlan Gray 9 Apr

John MacLachlan Gray is a writer/composer who lives in Vancouver. Among his wide ranging works are the renowned play Billy Bishop Goes to War, co-written with Eric Peterson, and mystery novels including Not Quite Dead and The Fiend in Human.

In 2000, about the same time the Vancouver police were at long last beginning to cotton on to Willie Pickton and his dirty work, I was doing research for a thriller called The Fiend In Human, set in Victorian London.

My novel concerned a serial killer who preyed on prostitutes. A Jack the Ripper knockoff really, but with unexpected twists. For me, the use of a traditional thriller template served as a kind of rock drill into the underworld of London around 1860, and what it was like to live there.

I didn't know where the thing was going. I didn't even know why I was so interested in the period. Certainly I wasn't conscious of a resemblance between the tale I was telling and the mysterious horror of Vancouver's missing women.

Then at some point the penny dropped, and I came to the alarming realization that in a whole lot of ways, I was a Victorian. That so much of my inner life -- my assumptions, my habits, the way I was brought up -- was pure Victoriana.

It started with small discoveries. For example, take the room we call the "living room": Do you know where that name came from? From the Victorian parlour. Whose nickname, in common conversation, was "dead room" -- because that's where you kept the dead person, laid out for "visitation."

Remember, in 1860 people died all the time, of all sorts of things. If you got tonsillitis or appendicitis, you died. If you cut yourself and got a serious infection, you died. A bad cold could turn to pneumonia, and you died. In childbirth, either the child, or you, or the both of you probably died.

Death could come at any time and without warning; your 40 year-old uncle could go to bed singing and be dead of apoplexy the next morning. Consequently, the parlour was kept immaculate and ready for visitors, with an expanse of space in the centre for the coffin and, to minimize odors, at a cooler temperature the rest of the house.

Enter the mortician industry.

A group of enterprising funeral directors erected a purpose-built building for keeping the dead person -- called a "funeral parlour," and billed as a place to park the body until burial. Which, according to advertisements of the day, would turn your "dead room" into a "living room."

But you know what? Where I grew up in Nova Scotia, that front room was still the dead room -- a formal arrangement of furniture with an empty carpet in the middle. Children were banned from the living room because they would mess it up. The room was kept colder than the rest of the house. In some homes, the sofa was covered with plastic.

We're talking six generations after immigrating from Scotland. Six generations!

Or take the ubiquitous front lawn -- an attempt by Victorian middle-class home-owners to imitate dukes and earls, who surrounded their castles with lawns so that an approaching enemy would be in the open and easily shot. Not what people are thinking when they mow their lawn, but there it is.

Family values? Pure Victoriana. Childhood innocence? Likewise. The "penitentiary"? Ditto. On and on and on. A few months of this and I came to the conclusion that, six generations later, much of Canada is more Victorian today than the Victorians ever were.

It can be kind of endearing -- except when it's not.

You see, in my Victorian thriller, the serial killer who preyed on prostitutes (who may have been a copycat) was able to elude capture because the murders, and the commonalities between them, failed to be taken seriously by the police.

Because the victims were "fallen women".

Sex workers in Victorian London

Forgive me, I know it's kind of lame to quote from one's own book, but here's a passage in which an older policeman (sometimes called Peelers back then) explains to his younger counterpart why it would, in the callously vicious logic of the Victorian, be best to take the body of a murdered prostitute and throw her into the Thames, rather than conduct an investigation:

"And where do you propose we begin? Shall we ferret out the 20 or so gentlemen our judy may have serviced this once around the clock -- the nameless clerks, sailors, drapers, not to mention our fellow Peelers getting a bit for free? Or perhaps we should begin with her toff, whoever he may be, who may have become tired of her, for that is all it takes with that sort. And while we comb the district from Haymarket to Soho, and Soho to Leicester Square, let us send a team of inspectors to her home village, wherever that may be, to interrogate the families she has disgraced by her own ruin. Shall we mobilize the force over the slashing of a whore? You decide, Mr. Dick, and be quick about it -- for you'll see another just like that one within a fortnight, and another after that. With this class of woman, it isn't whether, but when."

Sex workers in Victorian London were far more prevalent than in Vancouver, primarily because of the wage structure -- under which the wages of single women were kept low so as not to support a child out of wedlock and thereby encourage immorality. A bit like the Conservative objection to harm-reduction: that, without the threat of a medical death sentence, youth will be encouraged to take up drugs.

In Victorian London, this meant that well over a third of single women participated in some form of prostitution at some point in their lives. A servant who refused the advances of a man in the house, and was dismissed without a reference, chose between prostitution and starvation. A woman with medical bills and no way to pay them chose between prostitution and the poorhouse. Some jobs for women -- sewing dresses for example -- paid so poorly that if the worker didn't sell sex on the side she would starve to death.

Today we call such women "survival sex workers."

The police in my tale were the Metropolitan Police -- as I say, known as "Peelers" -- a paramilitary institution modelled after the British Army, with an organizational structure and a system of oversight that would be totally familiar to any member of the Vancouver police or the RCMP. With, in all three cases, an unspoken understanding over what cases to pursue and what cases not to pursue.

Elaine Allan, who ran the WISH drop-in centre for street sex workers from 1998 to 2001, recalled Tuesday that Tiffany Drew disappeared in the fall of 1999 and Drew's friend Ashwan was frantic the day after Tiffany vanished.

"She was completely hysterical," Allan recalled. "She was adamant that something was wrong."

She pointed out that Drew and Ashwan, another sex trade worker, used a "buddy system" to check in with each other after so many women had disappeared at an alarming rate.

"It was sort of this dark force out there, it's like there was this monster out there," Allan recalled of the missing women -- she knew 20 of them, including five of the six that serial killer Robert Pickton was convicted of killing.

The Vancouver Police Department has admitted it failed to do enough to investigate reports of missing sex workers and evidence that Pickton was responsible, but the force has denied racism or bias towards sex workers played any part in its failures.

I wonder how the police would have reacted if Tiffany were from Kerrisdale.

Which brings us to another problem identified with transplanted immigrant cultures: they tend not to follow the progress achieved by the mother country in their absence; they remain frozen in time.

A friend of Danish ancestry told me how a large influx of Danish emigrated to Canada in the 1950s, leaving behind a land of Lutheran order and racial harmony. Ten later, how shocking for them to return and to see what Copenhagen had become while they were away. To them, Denmark just wasn't Denmark anymore!

In the same way, Great Britain is a vastly different society today than it was a 150 years ago. But here in Canada, in the minds and mores of their descendents? Not so much. The Missing Women Inquiry demonstrates this, day after day.

Reform comes to London, but Vancouver?

With this in mind, compare the progress of the Oppal inquiry to the MacPherson Report in 1999 London, over the racially motivated murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993, after a cold-case investigation uncovered systematic racism in the London police that permitted the murderers to walk.

Following the report, the London police changed its approach to race relations, top to bottom. Every policeman now takes a course in race relations. Peer reviews occur whenever murder investigations involve what appear to be hate crimes. Police are trained to recognize racial biases in their colleagues and themselves.

And as a reminder to the society at large, the Stephen Lawrence Centre was created in South London, together with a charitable trust for improving the lives of young black citizens.

And by extension, much of London changed. "Respectable" British citizens, who habitually feel embattled by all sorts of alien trends, began to turn up their noses at overt racism. It had become indecent. It wasn't something one did.

Will anything like that happen as a result of the Missing Women Inquiry? Will there be a centre built in the name of those murdered women? Will the Vancouver Police and the RCMP delve into and recognize age-old folkways that translate into institutional racism, sexism and contempt for poor people?

Former Vancouver police chief Terry Blythe took the stand, and made it clear he wasn't having any of it. It was circle-the-wagons time for Mr. Blythe, who hired Edward Greenspan, one of the most expensive lawyers in the country, to hold his hand and defend his interests.

Greenspan asked Blythe about suggestions of racism, that, as the VPD publicly admitted, "somehow police didn't try enough to find the women who began disappearing from the Downtown Eastside as early as 1991."

Blythe replied: "I do find it offensive, given all the good work we did and the commitment we made to this troubled neighbourhood." This troubled neighbourhood: How Victorian. How compartmentalized. The problem is not with us -- it's them.

Now I note that Mr. Oppal has found it necessary to call an inquiry into institutionalized sexism within his own staff -- giving us an inquiry into the inquiry. Next, I suppose we'll get an inquiry into the inquiry into the inquiry, like a malevolent version of Alice in Wonderland -- another Victorian artifact.

Perhaps it's time Immigration Minister Jason Kenney stopped complaining about the evils of the Niqab and sharia law, and focused on the cultural inheritance of born Canadians. He might be shocked by what's out there.

[Tags: Rights and Justice.]  [Tyee]

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