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Privatized Justice No Justice for Women

By Suzanne Jay

Originally published in Herizons Magazine, Summer 2002

The case of the more than 50 women missing from Vancouver’s downtown Eastside has garnered international attention and embarrassment for the city. Three mayors and the Vancouver Police Department stand accused of ignoring the disappearances as they began around 1984. The current search of a farm in the small community of Port Coquitlam and the pending criminal trial of accused farm owner Robert William Pickton continue to be the focal point of intense media scrutiny. At the daily and now weekly briefings, police release little information and accuse their critics of “having an axe to grind.”

Authority over whether the police investigation of this case is satisfactory has been bestowed on family members of some of the missing women. Daily at first and now weekly, the media interviews family members to get their impressions of how the police are doing. The families are being established as the people who must be satisfied when the police conclude their investigation. Justice becomes `privatized’ to the families, and so has police accountability been privatized to the families.

So where are the feminists? My organization, Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter has not been reticent about the case of the missing women. We’ve spoken publicly, rallied, organized, criticized, held press conferences, provided services and performed advocacy work that has saved women’s lives since and before 1984. Canadian feminists organized transition houses and rape crisis centres a decade earlier. Callers, residents and workers in these centres continue to include prostituted women. We are intensely affected by the missing women case. On the front-line, crisis callers ask our opinion about whether to use the police. It’s difficult to be encouraging.

I have an idea about why the police and their civil bosses try to bypass antiviolence activists and disregard our expertise. To engage us would mean having to make a public accounting of how raped women and prostituted women are treated by police. To engage feminists would be to acknowledge that women on the missing list were raped and battered many times throughout their lives and that the police did little to prevent violence from recurring.

Anti-violence feminists have an agenda of making the state accountable to the public and our agenda is political: women’s rights. We have argued against the current prevailing direction of law and policy changes. For example, we argued against the creation of ‘John Schools’ for men soliciting prostituted women. Instead calling for the straightforward arrest and charging of the men because our experience tells us that public accountability is a more effective preventative measure. Much is the same in the case of the missing women. The state avoids engaging the preventive solutions to improve the lives of women when it is accountability to family members. What we want is for our demands for the correction of laws, or policies or behaviour to be acted upon.

I make this assessment in the middle of the resignation of the Provincial Police Complaints Commissioner, accused by his own staff of protecting Vancouver police from complaints ranging from police brutality at APEC to the death of a native man who was left in an alley. As well, the Mayor of Vancouver, also head of the Vancouver Police Board, has refused to conduct an investigation into police response to the disappearances of the 50 women, despite a civil suit by several family members. In the meantime, a civil case launched by a police officer has revealed infighting at the upper echelons of the police department. Senior officers allegedly ignored their own specialist’s warning of a serial killer operating in the downtown Eastside.

Making matters worse is the B.C. provincial government’s cynical cuts to welfare, education, health services and legal aid – critical strands of the social safety net that can make a life or death difference to women. These cuts will push more women into prostitution – into the category of the women who can go missing without consequence to the men who target the vulnerable.

Yet the majority government of Gordon Campbell continues with its agenda, with seeming disregard to its affect on the lives of women.

The media and police have put the family members of the missing women in the untenable situation of being expected to be critical of the police, yet they are made entirely dependent on the same police for information about the investigation and the fate of `their woman.’ Police-controlled victim services workers have reportedly warned family members about jeopardizing the investigation by speaking with media and non-police agencies (read feminist).

The families are being encouraged to grieve, to have funeral services and to believe that this is what brings closure. In the meantime, the police increase the estimated time of searching the farm. The current estimate is now over a year. Most family members will be grieved out. The pressure on the public to believe that Robert William Pickton killed most if not all of the missing women is enormous and family members are being used to add to that notion. Even if `their woman’ is not one of the seven that Pickton is charged with killing, there is pressure to respond as though they have settled on him as the killer. There is a risk that even those cases not linked to Pickton may be attributed to him and closed anyway.

If we accept that police need only to be accountable to the families and not to the public, then the disappearances will remain a public obscenity. If so, families may move on and be grateful for something resembling closure, but nothing will be gained for women in the province.

Suzanne Jay is a collective member of Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter.

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