A systemic bias against sex workers and indigenous women caused “blatant failures” in the police investigations of missing and murdered women in B.C. according to the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry Report released on Dec. 17.
Commissioner Wally Oppal titled the report Forsaken for the vulnerable women who were forgotten by the police and by society and for those currently at risk — an important acknowledgement according to many who study or work with sex workers.
“Just hearing Oppal state this meant something to me,” said Robina Thomas, co-chair of UVic’s First Peoples’ House and associate professor at the School of Social Work in an email interview. Thomas’s research project, called Someone’s Mother, Sister or Daughter, focuses on family relations of indigenous women in the sex industry, which are often neglected in media and government reports.
By addressing poverty and marginalization as the issue’s root causes, Oppal appeased some critics who said the inquiry was too narrowly focused on police investigations. The Dec. 17 press conference in Vancouver coincided with the International Day to End Violence Against Women and was attended by families of the victims.
Both the Someone’s Mother, Sister or Daughter project and Oppal’s report emphasize indigenous women in the sex industry as disproportionately represented among missing women and at high risk.
“One of the issues we’ve encountered in our research is poverty for indigenous peoples and indigenous women in particular,” said Jeannine Carrière, professor at UVic’s School of Social Work and Thomas’s research colleague. “And so if we don’t address that issue, all of the other issues become secondary.”
In the Someone’s Mother, Sister or Daughter project, Carrière and her colleagues examine how sex workers’ family relationships affect transitioning out of the work. Over 70 per cent of the women interviewed for the project were aboriginal. There are roughly 600 cases of missing indigenous women across Canada, a group that makes up two per cent of the population.
“We see that as a direct link to colonization and continuing colonization,” said Carrière. “The reality of sex work in Canada is that indigenous women are more likely to experience violence and poverty . . . It should be no surprise . . . the number of indigenous women who have been marginalized, abused, who have gone missing, because we see that as a systemic issue in Canada.” She added, “Those are the main issues that we need to look at.”
The Someone’s Mother, Sister or Daughter project team interviewed women in four Canadian cities, providing a national view on an issue that is hotly debated in Vancouver, particularly in light of serial killer Robert Pickton’s trial. Since research for the UVic project began in 2009, four interviewed women from Winnipeg have died.
“We were concerned with what was being portrayed in the media as either families being responsible for children entering sex work, or for portraying sex workers as having few family relationships,” said Carrière. “We wanted to address these stereotypes and look at family relationships, as well as conduct a discourse analysis of print media coverage.”
Carrière and her colleagues found that more resources for co-ordinated sex workers’ agencies and unconditional support from these services are needed to better the lives of the women. A media analysis showed that sex workers are often dehumanized in the media, which Carrière says promotes a negative public attitude and violence against vulnerable women.
Where Oppal’s report investigates police failures, the UVic research project highlights methods of policing that have been more successful in cities other than Vancouver. Carrière noted the importance of providing support centres and networks to sex workers.
The Someone’s Mother, Sister or Daughter project conducted 99 in-depth interviews with sex workers in Edmonton, Calgary, Regina and Winnipeg and gathered information that could be compared with Oppal’s evaluation of Lower Mainland police. For example, the Edmonton police have co-ordinated with the Métis child and family services organization and work to interact, build relationships and keep an eye out for sex workers. “The women I spoke to . . . talked about the police still as agents of social control, but they seemed to have a supportive attitude towards the women, a less punitive approach, perhaps,” said Carrière, “and more coming up to women on the corner and saying, ‘Are you okay? How’s it going?’ and moving on and not just ignoring them or being negative with them.”
One of Oppal’s two informal recommendations was to extend services at an emergency centre for sex workers, which Justice Minister Shirley Bond confirmed is underway with $750 000 of government funding going to Vancouver’s Women’s Information and Safe House (WISH).
Implementation is key
Oppal’s final recommendation called for the appointment of an adviser and committee to continue dialogue with the families of victims and ensure the other 64 recommendations are evaluated and pursued by the government. Bond announced the appointment of former lieutenant-governor Steven Point to head the implementation of Forsaken.
The First People’s House co-chair is cautious with optimism.
Thomas said, “I think bringing Steven Point on to carry out the recommendations is a positive move if he is in fact given both the power and resources to follow through following our teachings of uy’skwuluwun — with a good mind and spirit.”
Carrière also noted the importance of providing tools to people with authority to realize the report’s recommendations. Carrière has been involved in indigenous advocacy, helping set up the Edmonton Métis child and family services organization and working as a social worker and researcher, since the early 1970s. She has seen such reports — headed by provincial and federal governments and top researchers and given millions of dollars — fail in the past. “I’m not saying that it’s bad research; it’s usually conducted with top-notch researchers. However, where it falls down is the implementation of recommendations,” said Carrière. “Indigenous people are sometimes consulted and sometimes not, but even when they are consulted, the recommendations . . . are not carried out, whether it is a fiscal excuse or a change in leadership. And so, I’m not overly optimistic that these recommendations are going to be implemented, either.” Carrière encourages more support for sex worker services, particularly those that highlight child and family welfare support, and supports a regional police force that focuses on human rights rather than criminal justice.
Other critics have noted that several of Oppal’s recommendations, such as the regionalized police force, have been discussed for several years without enthusiastic government response. Some recommendations call for a regionalized investigation analysis database, improved transportation along the Highway of Tears (an 800-kilometre section of Highway 16) and compensation funds for the families of victims.