Recent deaths of young indigenous women at DTES highlight longstanding fears

Lives for indigenous women in the Downtown Eastside remain precarious despite lessons learned from the Pickton murders


The recent discovery of the bodies of young women in the Downtown Eastside is renewing attention to a long-standing security risk, one that advocates and community members say has been made worse during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Angela Marie-MacDougall, executive director of Battered Women’s Support Services, says that along with the danger women face in the community, there has been a pushback in advances from government agencies, including the Vancouver police.

“There has been a profound regression in all the progress that we thought we had made,” said Marie-MacDougall. “We’re back to where we were at least before 2010, but frankly maybe even since when there were serial killers in the neighborhood.”

This year, violent crime rates at DTES, where serial killer Robert Pickton found some of his victims, many of whom were reported missing between 1978 and 2001, are more than double those of the rest of Vancouver. according to police data.

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While violent crime occurs more frequently at DTES, police say the number of missing person reports, including those involving indigenous women, has not increased by an identifiable amount in the past year.

Still, Marie-MacDougall and other advocates are renewing the call for police to quickly and thoroughly investigate reported disappearances, especially those involving indigenous women.

Last week, the body of 25-year-old Kwem Manuel-Gottfriedson was discovered in a building near East Hastings Street and Hawks Avenue three days after his family reported him missing and two days after warning signs were posted. missing people around the city.

Kwem Manuel-Gottfriedson, 25, was found dead July 30 inside a building near East Hastings and Hawks Avenue.
Kwem Manuel-Gottfriedson, 25, was found dead July 30 inside a building near East Hastings and Hawks Avenue. jpg

The death of the Merritt woman, who did not frequent the DTES, is being investigated by the major crimes section of the Vancouver Police and the BC Forensic Service.

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A block from where her remains were found is where the bodies of 14-year-old Noelle O-Soup and an unidentified woman in her 30s were discovered in May. More than two months earlier, an unidentified man in his 40s was found dead in the same room.

Despite a police investigation into the man’s death, officers were unaware of the two dead women, even though other SRO residents had complained in previous weeks of an odor coming from the unit.

A vancouver police officer now faces an investigation related to the discovery of the the remains of the missing teen, on an allegation of dereliction of duty, according to the Office of the Police Complaints Commissioner.

O’Soup had been reported missing from her foster home in Port Coquitlam more than a year before her body was found.

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The connection between O-Soup, the woman found in the room and the man is still under investigation, Const said. Tania Visiontin of the VPD. “Noelle’s death has raised many questions in the community and we are committed to finding answers.”

The investigation comes as Vancouver police continue to search for Tatyanna Harrison, a 20-year-old indigenous woman who has been missing for three months.

Harrison, last seen at DTES, had been in regular contact with her family until she sent her mother one last text in late March.

Police still have no leads on his whereabouts, Visintin said.

“Each report of a missing person is promptly investigated by a patrol officer and a risk assessment is completed early on… each case is prioritized based on risk and investigated in a timely manner, particularly when vulnerable individuals are involved.”

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Louisa Housty-Jones, the women’s representative for the BC Assembly of First Nations, has accompanied several families as they navigate police procedures to search for their missing loved ones.

What he has seen: “Lots of recommendations but little to no action by the police,” said Housty-Jones, a councilwoman for the Heiltsuk Nation. “We feel like we’re not being heard.”

Wally Oppal, who led a 2012 provincial investigation into police investigations into disappearances and deaths of women in the Downtown Eastside, said at the time that law enforcement often treated cases involving women in marginalized communities as an afterthought. .

Opal Wally.
Opal Wally. Photo by Arlen Redekop /PNG files

“Things have changed since the days of Pickton, in a typical scenario a mother or relative would report a missing person and the police response was that they didn’t have time to look for prostitutes and drug addicts,” Oppal told Postmedia.

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“Today, the police have become more aware of the danger vulnerable women face. However, there are still problems.”

While police can now access real-time reports of missing persons in other areas of the province, not all of the investigation’s recommendations have been implemented. “Many haven’t,” Oppal said.

Findings from the Missing Women’s Commission of Inquiry, which held 93 days of hearings and heard 85 witnesses, recommended improving police accountability to the community and policies and practices on missing persons.

Following the investigation, the VPD made its missing persons unit a regular part of the police force, implementing a list of guidelines that include launching an investigation without delay and keeping case files open until the person has been located. .

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Vancouver Police also established SisterWatch, made up of DTES women, VDP staff, community leaders and others, after protests in 2010 called for greater police responsibility to investigate the deaths and disappearances of indigenous women.

The committee, which is mandated to listen to community concerns, was established after the death of 22-year-old Ashley Machisnick was ruled a suicide after she fell from a Regent Hotel window.

Neighbors and supporters, including Marie-MacDougall, believe Machiskinic was killed as a public warning from drug dealers. For an unpaid debt of $30, activists said at the time, women shave their heads and are killed if they owe at least $50.

“The committee was designed to hold the police accountable for their indifferent and blatant failure to respond to violence against women in the neighborhood,” said former member Marie-MacDougall.

She said that she left SisterWatch after becoming disillusioned.

“SisterWatch has failed to deliver on anything that it promised…police are not distributing missing person posters through community organizations or conducting proper missing person investigations at DTES,” he said.

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