Women feel no safer now than when Pickton prowled Downtown Eastside, inquiry told

BY SUZANNE FOURNIER, THE PROVINCE FEBRUARY 29, 2012

Lee Hamiltion addresses the commission.

Vancouver sex trade workers are still being told by police to move to dark and dangerous “containment zones” north of East Hastings St., the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry was told Tuesday.

And the inquiry heard that sex workers feel no safer now than when serial killer Robert Pickton preyed on Downtown Eastside residents in the 1990s.

“This inquiry has been told police had hundreds of suspects in late 1999, of men preying on sex workers — is that still the case today?” lawyer Jason Gratl asked panel member Jamie Lee Hamilton, an advocate for sex workers.

Hamilton, who said she is “constantly in communication with survival sex workers,” said “there are still literally hundreds of violent men for them to watch out for.”

Survival sex workers, said Hamiton, are drug-addicted women forced to work for low pay in dangerous areas, frequented by many violent offenders.

“I have myself called the VPD to ask for more officers to protect women and am told they simply don’t have the resources,” said Hamilton, a First Nations Cree woman who entered the sex trade herself at age 15, in 1971.

Hamilton told Commissioner Wally Oppal, who thanked the panel profusely, that police and Crown counsel should consider granting immunity to “women who are victims of violence. Right now women don’t trust police.

Asked if police and Crown should grant immunity from prosecution to sex workers who are victims of violence, Hamilton replied “I’m hoping this comision can go down that path.”

Hamilton agreed with Gratl, a lawyer for “Downtown Eastside interests” that many sex workers use illicit drugs and are facing warrants or charges.

“They are told they won’t be arrested if they move along to the containment zone north of Hastings St. but it’s dark, isolated and very unsafe,” said Hamilton, noting that Pickton’s former “hunting-ground” around the Waldorf and Astoria Hotels is still the most dangerous area for sex workers.

Even sex workers along Kingsway, where Hamilton now runs a licensed business, are told to “move out of that area to the containment zones.

“They’re told not to work in pairs and to keep walking, so they can’t check out a date in a car or get a friend to take down license plates for them.”

In response to questions by lawyer Robyn Gervais, acting for First Nations groups, Hamilton also called on Oppal to recommend that the VPD sex trade liaison officer Linda Malcolm work with a civilian and aboriginal liaison.

Hamilton also recommended aboriginal counsellors for sex workers, since First Nations women make up 50 to 60 per cent of those in the sex trade.

Oppal thanked Hamilton, saying “you’ve done so much good advocacy over the years in various groups and I commend you for that.”

Oppal also thanked panel member Maggie de Vries, author of a book about her sister Sarah de Vries, who went missing in 1998 and was confirmed in 2002 as a victim of Pickton. “Your book should be required reading,” said Oppal.

He also thanked de Vries for “bringing Sarah to the inquiry” with Sarah’s writing and a video in which an articulate Sarah described drug addiction.

De Vries told the inquiry that the mistaken belief that the missing women were “transient” who would show up eventually, “not only prevented police from looking for the missing women, it was a wrong strategy that cost some women their lives.”

This week, the inquiry has shifted to a “less adversarial” approach of hearing from community panels rather than experts and police officers. Oppal said the “shift” will help him form useful recommendations.

On Wednesday, the inquiry will return to retired RCMP Insp. Don Adam, former head of Project Evenhanded, the joint RCMP-VPD Missing Women Task Force.

Next week, the inquiry will hear from a police panel from District 2, the Downtown Eastside, made up for former VPD Const. Dave Dickson, former VPD Supt. Gary Greer and a third police officer.

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