UPDATE: A Vancouver B.C. jury returned their verdict today in the trial of Robert Pickton, finding him guilty of second-degree murder in the deaths of six of the women depicted below: Sereena Abotsway, Mona Wilson, Andrea Joesbury, Brenda Wolfe,Georgina Papin and Marnie Frey. The verdict carries a life sentence. Pickton faces a second trial for the murder of the remaining women whose remains were found at his pig farm.
The images above are of women believed to have been murdered by pig farmer Robert “Willy” Pickton of Vancouver, B.C., over decades of “Piggy Palace” parties. They were created by a group of artists troubled over the fact that photos of the missing women which appeared in newspapers were stark, dehumanizing mugshots, the women characterized as “prostitutes” or “hookers” or “drug addicts,” as though any of this were any issue when a woman is murdered.
Pamela Masik’s “The Forgotten” project is comprised of mural-size paintings of the women’s faces which are to be displayed throughout Vancouver. The description of Masik’s project reads:
The Forgotten is a large-scale, powerful series of portraits of women’s faces. Sixty-nine portraits, to be precise – the number of women from Vancouver’s downtown eastside who have been missing for more than a decade. The majority of them have now been identified, yet the public’s knowledge of them has, for the most part, consisted of small police photos aligned in a grid on a poster, showing most of them as blurred and haggard representations at their worst.
At one time these women had multiple faces and roles in the community. They left thousands of memories and historical details. They were mothers, friends, wives or daughters. They had run from abusive relationships, they were drug addicts, mentally challenged, or had families to support and little means to do it other than prostitution. Many were First Nations people. At this point, 26 of the missing women have been identified as slain by Port Coquitlam farmer Robert Pickton.
… Believing it is our collective responsibility to support and empower individuals of high risk, Masik is painting each woman on a 8 x 10 foot canvas using a style raw with energy and passion. The cinematic scale by itself is scary. She is taking the tiny faces off the poster and forcing us to see the narratives of sadness, anger and fear.
…The FORGOTTEN portraits are designed to provoke a personal emotional reaction – something that is becoming harder and harder to accomplish. One hundred years ago, news that a man nicknamed “Jack the Ripper” killed five prostitutes sent shock waves across Western countries that still reverberate. Yet a monstrous anomaly in today’s news is like just another body in a television show like CSI.
Are human beings wired to accept only just so much horror? Are we selective about what we respond to? And should we be? These are the kinds of questions that motivate Masik.
Some of the women will fade like ghosts because little, if anything, is known about them. Many, hopefully, will be memorialized and the healing process begun for those who knew them. But Masik’s project shouts at us. It speaks of women marginalized in societal structures, made dependent and disillusioned about their own power and self-worth. It points to our own geographic and spiritual distance from them. After all, they are not where we live; they are “downtown”; they are sick, or poor, or “on drugs”. We might even think they could help themselves if they really wanted to. We certainly believe other people will help them if we don’t. They are invisible both physically and socially in the alleys where we don’t go, behind cars where we can’t see them, in buildings we will never visit.
This is the moral distance that Masik goes, to make us see their faces and hear their voices, to force us to face the passion, anger and despair in lives and deaths like these. She brings the missing women to us and wraps us in the violence.
Robert “Willy” Pickton and his brother had been respected pig farmers who lived in Vancouver, B.C. on their family farm (which was recently sold for $10 million to pay Pickton’s attorney’s fees) for all of their lives. Prostituted women, drug-addicted women, who had gone to Willy Pickton’s “parties” at his bidding had sometimes warned one another about Pickton, the parties, the cocaine and other drugs he made freely available, had said that there might be trouble for women there. Even women who had not been harmed there sensed they could have been, and that something was wrong.
In 1997, attempted murder charges had been brought against Pickton for an incident in which a woman bleeding from stab wounds ran from Pickton’s farm to a neighbor’s house for help. Pickton was exonerated, and if I am recalling correctly, it was because in the end, the woman would not testify against him or could not be found to testify against him. Women in trouble rarely are willing to risk giving that kind of testimony.
It wasn’t until December 2001, after 46 women had been known to have gone missing from Vancouver’s East Side, that authorities began to investigate their cases not as missing persons cases, but as possible murders. It wasn’t until 2002 that Pickton was finally arrested and charged, his farm seized and sealed off, with authorities searching the farm and fields for evidence. 150,000 DNA swabs were taken in that search. In the end, remains of 26 women were found on Pickton’s properties, most of those remains limited to what could be captured on a DNA swab. Authorities reported that it could not be ruled out that meat produced at the farm might have contained human remains.
In the shock and outrage that followed each new revelation, First Nations healing ceremonies were held at the farm for the sake of the spirits of the women murdered there. Marches were held in memorial. A beautiful song was written and produced (you can listen if you click on the link) in which each of the murdered women is named. A book, Remembering Women Murdered by Men, written by Sly Castaldi and Professor Christine Bold (pictured above) was published about the 60 monuments made to murdered women throughout Canada. The authors say they encountered tremendous resistance to including the words “by men” in the title of their book, something they did in solidarity with the monument-makers, some of whom received death threats for including those words. We aren’t supposed to talk about the way women are murdered “by men.” We’re supposed to talk about “murdered women,” as though men were not their murderers, when almost always, men are. As the authors say, “It takes courage to name men’s violence against women.”
Pickton’s trial has been bifurcated, and he will be tried for six of the murders he is charged with beginning January 22, 2006 in Vancouver, B.C. . He will be tried afterwards on the remaining 20 charges. The trial will be headline news for a long, long time; it is expected to last a year. Survivors of the murdered women are going to be compensated by the government for parking, transportation and lunches for five days only. Two “citizen journalists,” former prostituted women, one of whom knew Pickton, will be among those covering the trial. I know I will be paying close attention to what they report and say. I am not posting a photo of Pickton. Enough people can be expected to remember him, and not the women whose lives I believe he has taken.
We can be sure that the murdered women will be described in media, in blogs, in ways which dehumanize them and grieve and enrage their families and all of us who are committed to ending violence against women. In anticipation of the trial and attendant reporting, I wanted to offer these images, this music, these beautiful words in memory of beautiful young women, with their whole lives ahead of them, had they somehow been able to make their way into freedom. May each one rest in the arms of the goddess, and may their loved ones, friends, may all of us who care what happened to them, ultimately find peace and healing.
Our sisters at Vancouver Rape Relief have done some amazing activist work and provided fine information about the missing women:
- Police Accountability Rally
speech by Cristina, VRRWS, June 6 2003
- Missing Women CD in memory of Angela Rebecca Jardine
One of many missing women from downtown Vancouver, B.C. with partial revenue to support Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter
- Privatized justice no justice for women
Herizons Magazine, Summer 2002
- VRRWS in Solidarity with Native Women
on Call for Inquiry into Missing Women
Press Release, Vancouver Rape Relief & Women’s Shelter, April 12, 2002
- Statement on the police investigation of 50 women missing from Vancouver’s downtown eastside
Statement by Vancouver Rape Relief & Women’s Shelter, February 8, 2002
- Statement by the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre
February 8, 2002
- Statement by Aboriginal Women’s Action Network
February 8, 2002
- Speech by Daisy Kler
On the 10th annual memorial of the missing and murdered women of the Downtown Eastside, February 14, 2001
Another fine source for information is Holly’s Fight For Justice.