Sarah Jean de Vries. It’s not a name I knew before seeing filmmaker Janis Cole’s video installation, Remember Their Names, at a Toronto gallery, but I’d now be hard-pressed to forget it.
Her missing poster, case No. 98-88486, reads like this: Known prostitute and drug user; black, white, Aboriginal, Mexican Native heritage; age 28; last seen at Princess and Hastings streets on April 14, 1998.
She is one of 27 dead women Robert Pickton faces murder charges for; one of 68 women, Indians, junkies and whores, missing from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
Not a week into her disappearance, friends and family postered and pushed police to act — not just for Sarah, but for dozens who had disappeared since the 1980s.
That inaction is Cole’s constant theme. A screen flashes quotes from police: “We’ve done as much as we could.” “We’re in no way saying there is a serial killer … (or) the women are dead.”
The installation loops footage of Sarah shooting up. “There’s three ways you can go: Jail; dead; or end up a lifer down here,” she says.
In a 1999 Seattle Times article, Sereena Abotsway echoed Sarah’s despair, saying she feared for her safety. She joined community marches to call for police action as women disappeared. Two years later, she, too, went missing, one of six women Pickton was convicted of killing in 2007.
This is Canada’s collective shame, ignoring women like Sarah and Sereena, who felt fear and vulnerability with urgency, who asked for (and gave) help, but received none.
It’s a tired cry for a static situation: Why has nothing been done? Since 1969, 18 women have disappeared or been murdered on Highway 16, the Highway of Tears, in northern B.C. Last fall, best friends Maisy Odjick and Shannon Alexander disappeared from the Kitigan Zibi reserve north of Ottawa without even their wallets, but for months police maintained the teens had simply run away.
“No one cares, we are just junkie scum. Yet if we had been somebody important and our daughter had gone missing,” Sarah wrote, presciently, before her disappearance, “no stone unturned, no rock or cranny would be left unsearched.”