This handout photo shows a posterboard of 48 missing women used in the police interview of accused serial killer Robert Pickton after his arrest in February 2002. The posterboard was released by Justice James Williams for the media to record at Pickton’s trial in New Westminster, Wednesday, January 31, 2007. (AP PHOTO/CP)
NATIONAL: CHRIS MUNRO* tells the horrendous story of Canadian serial killer Robert Pickton, who preyed on many Aboriginal women.
We’re separated by over 13,000 kilometres, two oceans, not to mention a hemisphere – yet for centuries there’s been a notion that Australia and Canada are somewhat similar.
I guess we both speak a form of English, our major cities are similar in size and population. And yes, in terms of lifestyle, we both have a similar average wage and share, for the most part, very affluent, first world living conditions.
But another, albeit darker likeness we share is our very institutionalised and deep-seated racism towards our respective First Peoples.
Both Canada and Australia pride themselves on being two of the world’s most multicultural and tolerant countries. And while this ruse may wash with some of our international visitors on the tourist circuits, we locals know it’s a long, long way from the truth.
To properly illuminate Canada’s and Australia’s poisonous connection, I’m begrudgingly forced to take you to the very darkest margin of humankind…
The loss of a loved one, especially in tragic circumstances such as homicide is perhaps the most disabling of emotions one can endure.
Anyone who’s suffered the experience will tell you that while it’s usually different for every family or friend involved, it’s always gut-wrenching, exhausting and, of course, truly unforgettable.
Sadly, it’s upon this bleak summit of hardship that the real comparison between Australia and Canada is best unpacked.
Cases of missing and murdered Aboriginal people in both countries, and the corresponding police response, is the intersection where Canada and Australia collide to virtually mirror each other, this despite the tyranny of distance separating them.
We’ll start with our ‘friendly’ maple syrup quaffing friends to the north.
Canada has the dubious honour of owning one of the most truly appalling statistics I’ve come across for a very long time. And it goes something like this:
The Native Women’s Association of Canada database includes 600, yes that’s 600, cases of missing or murdered Aboriginal women and girls, the majority having occurred between 1990 and 2010.
I’m no criminologist, but that’s seems like a hell of a lot of murder in a first world country, in such a short space of time and perhaps, most disturbingly, with a very clearly defined target: destitute Aboriginal women and girls.
But just before you pick your jaw up off the ground, it gets worse.
Aboriginal women in Canada make up only four percent of the total female population, but nearly all of those murdered or missing.
And Aboriginal women between the ages of 25-44 are also five times more likely to die a violent death than other Canadian females.
Now, the reasons for these stark figures can be plausibly explained… to a point.
Much like here in Australia, endless research has shown Aboriginal Canadians are more likely, due to a complex range of factors, to experience poverty and the disadvantages that come with it.
They have lower levels of educational achievement, poorer health, higher rates of addiction, a huge over-representation in the justice system, higher suicide rates, and a homicide rate that sits at seven times that of non-Aboriginals.
Remind you of anything? Sounds just like home doesn’t it? There’s no doubt that all of these factors contribute to one’s tendency to come into contact with violent crime or at worst, a violent death. What they fail to clarify however, is why Canadian murderers are deliberately targeting Aboriginal women to get their sick thrills.
It’s not an easy read, but taking a closer look at the gruesome case of Canada’s worst serial killer Robert Pickton, who preyed on marginalised Aboriginal women in and around Vancouver during the late 90s and early 2000s, gives us a greater understanding of why First Nations women were this sicko’s prime targets.
And make no mistake here. If the devil took human form, he’d look a lot like Robert ‘Ronnie’ Pickton.
In 2007, some years after his initial arrest on a firearms charge, Pickton was eventually convicted of second degree murder in the deaths of six women. He also stood accused of first degree murder in the deaths of 20 other women, although these charges were later stayed.
Following an extraordinary undercover sting in prison, the former pig farmer casually confessed to killing closer to 49 women at his run-down pig farm on the outskirts of Vancouver.
During the secret mealtime video recording, he groans at being stopped at 49 because he wanted “an even 50,” in between scoffing mouthfuls of prison stew.
The majority, although not all, of Pickton’s victims were Aboriginal prostitutes and drug addicts, working the tough streets of the Downtown-Eastside district of Vancouver. They were desperate, easy targets.
Dispossessed and in many cases addicted to heroin and crack cocaine, these girls were a magnet for creeps like Pickton, who willingly preyed on their helplessness.
Pickton’s actions were the very worst of the worst.
The way his clearly terrified victims would have died, and the acts that were then performed with their bodies are without doubt the sickest I’ve ever confronted, and perhaps ever will.
For that reason and out of respect for the victim’s families, they won’t be repeated here, nor should they ever be repeated at all for my mind.
Sadly though, a huge number of victims could have been spared had police and the Canadian justice system not dismissed the testimony of one Aboriginal woman brave enough to challenge Pickton and take him off the streets.
In 1997, some five years before Pickton was finally arrested and charged with murder, he’d had a run in with an Aboriginal street worker who went by the name of ‘Stitch.’
Pickton had engaged Stitch off the street in the Downtown Eastside, brought her back to the pig farm, and as he’d done dozens of times before, attempted to kill her.
Stitch fought back though, got hold of a carving knife and stabbed Pickton several times during a bloody fight for her life.
She later recounted, “I’m not going to lie, I tried to kill him, either I died or he died, and I fought for my life.”
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police later charged Pickton with four offences including attempted murder.
You’d be forgiven for thinking Pickton’s killing spree was all but over, but this is Canada and this was an Aboriginal drug addict, so you’d be wrong.
RCMP prosecutors believed Stitch’s “credibility would be an issue” at trial.
The charges were not pursued. Amazingly, despite attempted murder, Pickton walked.
He’d likely been killing for some years before his encounter with Stitch, one that nearly claimed his life.
But without a doubt, dozens of other Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal lives could have been saved had the Canadian justice system not displayed such institutionalised racism, ignorance and discrimination in 1997.
Stitch’s story is just one of many across Canada, which have led directly to what many have described as an ‘epidemic’ of missing and murdered Aboriginal women.
The Vancouver Police Department even called it a ‘national disgrace’ in their own report.
Since the Pickton murders, a string of other Aboriginal killings and an embarrassing wrap over the knuckles from the United Nations, the Canadians have finally made some moves to put an end to the terror.
They’ve established a database that collates missing persons information across the country, and they’ve bolstered proven prevention techniques specific to Aboriginal people and communities.
Whilst Australia thankfully hasn’t had it’s own ‘pig farm murders,’ it nonetheless shares the same, if not worse institutionalised racism and discrimination that’s contributed to the murderous wave sweeping through Canada.
What everyone’s thinking, but no one seems to want to highlight in these cases, is the blatant racism of police towards Aboriginal people in both countries.
And how such apathy and stereotyped assumption creates an environment where Aboriginal people become little more than prey.
Vermin like Pickton knew a long time ago that if they target people the authorities and indeed the broader community have scant regard for, then their chances of capture diminish significantly.
In our own backyard, we needn’t look further than the mid-north coast of New South Wales and the ‘Bowraville murders,’ where three Aboriginal children were killed.
And like Pickton (at least on the first attempt), Australian authorities let the known perpetrator walk free.
The racist attitudes of police in the Bowraville case are well documented.
Despite the desperate pleas of the missing children’s families, New South Wales Police infamously suggested that one of the children had simply ‘gone walkabout’ and would return in time.
Bowraville is of course not an isolated case.
There’s huge numbers of Aboriginal people missing across Australia, and authorities keep very little specific data, if any at all.
It’s sadly at the point now where our mob have such little faith in police and the justice system that they often go about finding their loved ones independent of authorities, relying on family contacts and the famed black ‘grapevine.’
Missing and murdered Aboriginal people – be they in Australia, Canada, America or wherever – will always be low on the priority list, an afterthought, until we see a paradigm shift in thinking and approach.
Sure, Canada and Australia share some fantastic similarities and relationships, but whilst apathy, racism and stereotyping prevails and continues to take Aboriginal lives, its only our bleakest traits that deserve our attention.
*Chris Munro is a Gamilaroi man and an employee of the NSW Aboriginal Land Council.