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Aboriginal women at risk: Disinterested authorities big part of problem


Paul Barnsley, Windspeaker Staff Writer







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Native women are being left exposed to a class of predators whose tactics in some ways resemble those of the pedophiles who staffed the residential schools. So say experts from many different disciplines.

Much as pedophiles discovered, and then passed the word, that residential schools were places where they could prey on Native children without worry of punishment, many observers agree that another breed of sexual predator has discovered that Native women, impoverished, marginalized, are fair game for abuse with little risk attached.

Dr. Kim Rossmo is a former Vancouver beat cop who went on to become a world famous expert on serial killers. He recently played a role in tracking the Beltway Sniper who terrorized Washington, D.C. for weeks.

Rossmo, the first police officer in Canada to earn a PhD, invented a geographic profiling system that enables police to dramatically reduce the number of possible suspects in a serial murder case. He was one of the first to realize that a serial killer was at work in the downtown eastside of Vancouver. Port Coquitlam pig farm owner Robert William Pickton is charged with the murder of 15 women, and is suspect in the disappearance of 50 others from the streets of Vancouver.

"I'll say on the record as someone with a PhD in criminology who studies serial murderers that it's well known that some predators have a preference for marginalized groups," Rossmo told Windspeaker during a phone interview on Nov. 18. "And in Canada, one of the marginalized groups are First Nations individuals, especially in Skid Row areas. In the United States it can be inner city blacks or Skid Row men, sometimes people in the gay community, especially if the gay communities are not as well established as they are, say, in Vancouver or San Francisco. You know that happened with Jeffrey Dahmer in Milwaukee."

The numbers of dead Native women-or missing and feared dead-have reached frightening totals. One estimate exceeds 500 over the last 15 years. A number that large would merit the term epidemic, but many activists say that since it's Native women, no one in authority is sufficiently concerned at this point.

The most high profile example of this phenomenon is the Pickton case in which half of his alleged victims are Aboriginal. But in the north of British Columbia there is another example going largely unnoticed.

The entire community of Prince George-especially the women-is on edge, wondering what happened to six women who disappeared along Highway 16, now dubbed the "Highway of Tears." All but one of the victims are Aboriginal. Interestingly, the only case that prompted an enthusiastic police investigation, assisted by significant media coverage, was the disappearance of Nicole Hoare, a non-Native woman. It's been over a year since she disappeared and posters bearing her likeness can still be seen at every highway on-ramp and at other locations around town. Native people in the area believe the same kind of efforts should be directed at finding the other victims.

Cities throughout Western Canada have similar situations.

Author Warren Goulding believes there are several hundred Native women who are unaccounted for across the country. He said police sources quibble over the actual number, but all that shows is that nobody has bothered to find out for sure.

"The thing that was disturbing is that if it was 600, or if it was 300, nobody bothered to say 'Who are these people?' I don't think anybody really knows the number. Nobody's done much of a job of making an effort to find out just how serious the problem is. That's the big issue. There's still a great deal of indifference to missing Aboriginal women," he said.

Goulding's book Just Another Indian-A Serial Killer and Canada's Indifference follows convicted murderer John Crawford as he stalks the streets of Saskatoon.

The author believes the numbers add up to an epidemic of violence against Native women that is encouraged by social attitudes.

"Whe I first started looking at it, I thought there was something going on in Saskatchewan. But it seems to be a national problem," he said.

In Calgary, police refused to act when a Web site depicting nude photos of only Native women, degrading and racists to even the most jaded observer, was reported. Local sources recognized the women to be frequenters of the sleazy bars, called "hug and slugs" by their patrons, in the downtown core. Every kind of illicit good or service is available in or near these establishments, from illegal drugs of all sorts to the sex trade. A lot of prostitution and drug use occurs on or near the grounds of the world famous Calgary Stampede.

The Web site, entitled The Girls of Calgary in what appears to be a sarcastic reference to Playboy photo features with similar names, shows women on which life on the streets and serious addictions problems have taken their toll.

Windspeaker, using an untraceable e-mail account, attempted to engage the Web site operator in an electronic conversation over a period of two weeks. He did not respond.

When a concerned Native person in Calgary complained to the police, that person was told that it was not a criminal matter.

Detective Brad Martin of the Calgary police service's technological crimes unit responded to questions about that decision.

"For him to take a picture of an adult or near adult woman and post it on the Internet does not fall under the Criminal Code as an offense," he said. "When we deal with matters that are criminal in nature and we want to get something before the courts, what the Crowns all across the country would say to any officer is 'What's the likelihood of a conviction on this charge?' If there's no likelihood of conviction, then don't lay the charge because you're wasting time and money for things that are important where you may get a conviction. In fact, the only situations where the Crown will OK a charge is one where you have explicit sex with violence. It seems that pople are still opposed to that. They're not opposed to explicit sex. They're not opposed to violence. But they're still opposed to explicit sex with violence and that's where Section 163 is used still."

Legal sources told this publication that the officers could launch an investigation based on Section 163 of the Criminal Code of Canada. Martin said that section is usually employed only in certain cases.

"Section 163 of the code is very broad and does cover things like corrupting the morals of a minor, which can be and still does get laid. Section 163.1 also deals with the child porn and child abuse laws which are still very much in use," he said. "Part of what we wrestle with every day is that social mores and what's acceptable today was not necessarily acceptable in times past. But we are not able to pursue it in criminal courts because we do not get convictions anymore for things that would have been convictions, say, 30 years ago.

We wrestle with that all the time and a lot of people have a problem with that. For example when I say a child of 14 years old can consent to have sex with a 35-year-old man, most right thinking people's response to that is: 'What! That's wrong.' And I agree. But it's law."

Asked if he thought the system needed to be adjusted to protect marginalized people, he responded in a way that many police endorse but many activists say is just not good enough.

"Because of the way our criminal laws are enacted or empowered, people who make some decisions fall through the cracks and they can't be saved from themselves, so to speak," he said. "The hard-ass attitude is 'You took your clothes off, lady, for this guy for whatever reason.' If I go and take my clothes off for a guy and he takes pictures of me then I've got to be thinking somewhere down the road he may use them to suit his purposes and why did I allow him to do that? I'm the one that allowed him to do that. We've come across those situations lots where people are playing as men an women do and then the relationship breaks up and now those pictures are on the net. We can't help them. Unfortunately, it doesn't fall within the police mandate. It's a civil matter."

Asked if he was at all worried that the Web site operator might be a sexual predator just starting to test the waters to see what he can get away with, the detective said it was possible but not necessarily probable.

"That's an unfortunate spin-off from some of those things. But on the other hand, I can put you in touch with people who have all sorts of strange philias that you would not believe that go their lifetime and would never go any further than that," he said.

Cherry Kingsley is a former sex trade worker in Vancouver who has escaped from the life to become an advocate for the women and especially children still caught up in that dangerous world. She is a powerful public speaker who attacks judgmental attitudes directed towards people she sees as victims.

"Many famous serial murderers started 'practicing' on people in the sex trade. Clifford Olsen had kidnapped and raped a young woman in the sex trade who later identified him to police, but they did nothing. The same thing was true for Jeffery Dahmer...These men had been identified to police as violent sex offenders, but police did nothing until their crimes were so horrific the public would not allow them to ignore it anymore. There are many stories like that," she said.

Kingsley and Senator Landon Pearson, Personal Representative of Prime Minister Jean Chretien to the Special Session on Children of the United Nations General Assembly in New York in September 2001, have worked together to try and change attitudes towards prostitution.

"Even to use the word 'child prostitute' is stereotyping. Stereotyping is an important part of this problem. You see someone on the street and the stereotype prevents you from seeing them as an exploited person," the Senator said.

She sees police indifference to be a big part of the prob