To know is to share the guilt
It's hard to read the reports relating to the inquiry into the murders that Robert Pickton committed on his farm in Port Coquitlam, B.C. over the course of many years, without feeling some measure of guilt.
Twenty poor and vulnerable women – prostitutes working Vancouver's seamy Downtown East Side – went missing over a period of more than a decade. For all noone but serial killer Robert Pickton knows, that grisly toll could be even larger.
But, as the victims' families claimed and commissioner Wally Oppal confirmed, police consistently refused to take the disappearances seriously, and when they did investigate, their work was fraught with errors, bungled nearly from beginning to end.
"There was an institutional systemic bias against the women," Oppal told reporters after his report was released. "They were poor, they were aboriginal, they were drug addicted and they were not taken seriously."
But if the police work was uniformly shoddy, what's my measure of guilt in that?
Those of us who work or volunteer with agencies that serve the poor, the homeless, the addicted and the mentally ill term where these women existed as a "high-risk lifestyle." (Full disclosure: my wife works for the Canadian Mental Health Association region in Red Deer; our daughters have worked summer jobs in the community CMHA serves in volunteer management, housing first services and with the local AIDS association. I'm a CMHA volunteer and fundraiser.)
We all know what "high-risk" means. There is generally no retirement age for sex trade workers, especially workers who have addiction problems. The vast majority either get out of the trade as quickly as they can, or they die in it.
So these women had already put themselves on a path to a severely shortened lifespan. What's my measure of guilt in that?
As I see it, Oppal's commission of inquiry, the police investigation which eventually grew massive, the hugely ornate and costly trial of Robert Pickton (taxpayers built him his own private high-security courtroom), the years of pleading by family members for some form of justice, these all came too late.
There is guilt enough to cover all corners here. But the part that concerns me is that these women came to the point where drug addiction and prostitution looked better to them than their lives did before they went onto the street.
Red Deer is lucky to receive the insights of people like Advocate columnist Chris Salomons. Because of his articles, nobody should be able to claim they never knew how frequently broken family trust, neglect, abuse – and sometimes plainly stupid choices – lead people to take on high-risk lifestyles on the street.
What's my measure of guilt in that? It's that I know this evil situation exists. It's that many, many people know this situation exists and that we're a bit too comfortable allowing it to continue. Until it touches us personally.
Commissioner Wally Oppal challenged all his readers to "imagine how you would feel, put yourself in the shoes of the missing and murdered women and think how you would feel if you were dismissed, considered unworthy of attention by the majority of the people in your city."
The burden is that we can't pretend the mentally ill, the poor, the homeless, or the addicted are invisible. Or that many of the forces that put them there can be identified and help for them can be found. Once you know, you cannot refuse to act, or else that burden turns to your share of guilt.