Robert Pickton is one of Canada’s most notorious serial killers. He became a prime suspect for the police in the disappearance of over 60 women since 1970 (Jiwani & Young, 2006). In 2007, he was convicted of 6 murder charges, while the remaining 20 charges were stayed on the basis that Pickton’s sentence would likely never allow him to be released from jail anyways and that a second trial would be incredibly costly (Lowman, 2011). However, keep in mind that this does not mean he did not commit those 20 murders he had been charged with.
The implications of his crimes raise serious questions. Why is it that he is one of Canada’s most notorious killers? Perhaps because his reign of terror spanned decades, allowing the number count of his victims to climb dramatically. But, how is it that Pickton went unnoticed for so long?
It is first significant to note that that the discovery of his role in the disappearances was in fact a complete accident. When the Vancouver Police Department discovered human body parts at Pickton’s property in February of 2002, they were originally searching it due to an illegal firearms warrant (Lowman, 2011). Before their unintentional discovery, they had refused to believe that a serial killer may have been responsible for the many disappearances from the Downtown Eastside for 30 years and had never proceeded with a formal investigation. Why? The missing individuals were Aboriginal women involved in the sex trade. This allowed the police to chalk up their disappearances to possible drug overdoses or disputes, suicides or “returning to their reserves”. The police claimed the disappearances were unavoidable and predictable due to the high-risk life style these individuals were living; therefore, the victims were to blame for whatever unsightly outcome would occur (Jiwani & Young, 2006).
A similar perspective was taken by the media, who didn’t focus on the seriousness of the disappearances nearly as much as they should have (Newbery, 2011). Media coverage of the missing women could have pressured the police into taking action, but this didn’t occur.
The most appalling response however was that of Canadian citizens (Jiwani & Young, 2011). Their complete lack of interest and urgency towards the missing Aboriginal women is reflective of issues that are rooted a lot deeper than simple indifference towards police and media ignorance and negligence.
We can begin to understand why and how the ignorance of the police, media and Canadian citizens enabled Pickton’s reign of terror. The disappearance of these women is only a sample of a larger societal dilemma. The Native Women’s Association of Canada estimates that at least 500 Aboriginal women in the past 20 years have gone missing in Canada (Jiwani & Young, 2006). This victimization can be linked to the years of discrimination and oppression that Aboriginal women received, stretching all the way back to residential schools; discrimination has become ingrained into society’s social, economic and political structures. Therefore, becoming sex workers and living “high risk lifestyles” (Jiwani & Young, 2011), may not always be a conscious choice as is commonly assumed; it may be the only option due to structural and systemic social and economic exclusion.
These social costs permitted discrimination and exacerbated the unfortunate circumstances of these Aboriginal women, acting as an accomplice in the actions and decisions of Robert Pickton and the lack of action by the police and the media. The combination of society’s social structures putting Aboriginal women in a vulnerable position and the negative stereotypes and judgments allowed Pickton to target them without the public noticing or caring that they had gone missing (Jiwani & Young, 2011). In regards to the police, D’Entremont (2004) points out that there are “two layers of justice, one for non-Aboriginal people and one for Aboriginal people.” Rather than give these missing women and their unavoidable circumstances the attention deserved, ingrained societal racism led to the police adopting a “blame the victim” attitude and an indifference towards their disappearances.
Pickton may be in jail serving his sentence, but the true problem is not solved yet. Recently however, The Government of Canada has initiated an independent National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls with a completion deadline of December 31, 2018. This inquiry will involve the commissioners looking into underlying factors and patterns that have lead to high rates of violence among Indigenous women and the current government and institutional policies and programs, with the end goal of making recommendations for change.
As part of their inquiry, a new website has been created where families that want to take part in the national inquiry can register. From there, five commissioners will select individuals to give formal testimony to the commission in Spring of 2017 as part of their goal to understand the systemic causes at play for Aboriginal women and how to make changes for the future.
While the dark past that Robert Pickton helped create cannot be altered, it is enlightening to see the government of Canada finally taking steps towards addressing an issue that has haunted Canada for so long. Even though it may take decades to undue the deep rooted social discrimination Aboriginal women face, recognition that there is an issue is the first step in the right direction- forward and away from the darkness that the likes of Robert Pickton have cast.
Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women: Reproducing Marginality in News Discourse
Jiwani, Tasmin and Young, Mary Lynn
Canadian Journal of Communication 31, 4 (2006): 895-917
Missing Women, Missing News: Covering Crisis in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside
Deadly Inertia: A History of Constitutional Challenges to Canada’s Criminal Code Sections on Prostitution: