A Vancouver sex-trade activist recounted the justice system’s failure to protect women who were killed or have disappeared as posters of missing persons were shown on screens Wednesday at a national inquiry.
Jamie Lee Hamilton said sex workers from Vancouver’s “Downtown Eastside killing fields” deserved better.
“I feel that the women were deemed as disposable,” Hamilton told the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
Hamilton said she grew up in Vancouver and began sex work in the early 1970s after dropping out of school. She started losing faith in the justice system when, as a teenager, a police officer picked her up, drove her into Stanley Park and demanded oral sex, Hamilton said.
Decades later, she said the police officer was put on administrative leave, but despite other allegations of harassment against him she was not aware of any further action being taken.
“It just seemed to be whitewashed,” she said.
Over the years, Hamilton said she heard more stories of sex workers disappearing from Vancouver, and she began collecting the missing persons posters.
She said sex workers knew a serial killer was preying on the community long before Robert Pickton was charged with murder in 2002.
“So many of them were talented. They were artists, they were creative, and it was so sad to see them going missing and nothing being done,” Hamilton said.
Pickton was found guilty on six counts of second-degree murder in 2007 in connection with women who disappeared from the Downtown Eastside and sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for 25 years. Twenty other counts of murder against him were stayed because he was already serving the maximum sentence.
Despite the deaths and disappearances, Hamilton said she remains hopeful that change will come.
“Surely we don’t live in a society that just abandons its most needy, its most vulnerable,” she said.
Other women testifying before the inquiry panel raised issues of systemic racism and the lack of support and justice for Indigenous people across the country.
Anni Phillips said she learned to distrust police while growing up in an abusive household in Saskatchewan.
“The police would come to the door and everyone would scatter and hide,” she said, recalling the years she spent with her stepfamily. “As I became older I began to understand … the police do not serve and protect Indians.”
She said police treated them like they were subhuman.
Her mother, who was Indigenous, left when she was a child and was found dead in a hotel several years later. Phillips said she didn’t learn about the details of her mother’s death until recently.
The coroner’s report said her mother had high levels of alcohol in her body at the time of her death, she had a broken jaw and was covered in bruises on her arms, neck and the back of her head, she said.
“There was something wrong about the way she died,” she said. “My mom would have been in extreme pain with that broken jaw, and I think she was self medicating that evening.”
She said she’s never been able to find a police report and is only left with more questions about why her mother didn’t seek help.
“Maybe she didn’t feel she was worthy,” she said.
The hearings began with chief commissioner Marion Buller saying it was an opportunity for Indigenous people to rewrite history and set the record straight about their lives and experiences.
Commissioners made a formal request to the federal government last month for the inquiry to be extended by two years.
Commissioner Michele Audette said Wednesday expectations are high for the inquiry’s outcome and in order to hear all the stories of victims, ask important questions, and produce a thorough report, the inquiry will need more time.
Carolyn Bennett, the minister of Indigenous relations and northern affairs, said last month that the government would consider the request for an extension.
Richmond is expected to be the final stop for the inquiry’s public hearings. Organizers said nearly 100 people have registered to testify and as many as 300 people are expected to tell their stories by the time hearings wrap up in Richmond on Sunday.