BY STEPHEN HUME, VANCOUVER SUN JUNE 29, 2012
Setting memorial plaques into Vancouver's Downtown East-side sidewalks to commemorate the lives of the women murdered and believed murdered by serial killer Robert Pickton is certain to generate a public conversation.
Why plaques for these specific women, singling them out among the hundreds murdered over the last 25 years, critics will ask.
Well, are these women less worthy of commemoration, say, than those murdered at L'Ecole Polytechnique? Or is social class the issue here?
Too little, too late, another likely argument will go, as though the act of remembering were a zero sum equation - remember all or remember none.
What about the symbolism of installing the plaques in sidewalks to be walked upon? Well, Hollywood celebrities are commemorated with side-walk plaques, so that seems a thin complaint. Besides, it was from these sidewalks that the downtrodden disappeared, so the symbolism is apt.
Others may wonder, why such haste to commemorate these particular women?
After all, nobody paid such attention to sex trade worker Karen-Lee Taylor, 19, strangled and left on a plastic sheet in Shaughnessy in 1990.
Dusty Sowan, 25, mother of an infant, was strangled and discarded naked in the south lane of West 24th Avenue's 700-block in 1988. Lisa Marie Gavin, 21, was beaten, strangled and dumped in a lane behind the 6400-block of Knight in 1988.
Vicki Rosaline Black, 23, was disposed of in a dumpster in the south lane of the 2000-block of Hastings in 1993, her shroud a grey sheet with patterned squares. Bernadine Stand-ingready, 26, was beaten to death and thrown away in an auto-wrecking yard in the 700-block of Cordova in 1991. Linda Joyce Tatrai, 18, was stabbed and left to die in an underground parking lot in the 1400-block of East Broadway in 1985.
Is this plaque initiative just exploiting the limelight created by the Missing Women Inquiry and the various controversies surrounding it?
Is it politically correct pandering to a sentimental public desire to exhibit grief as a vicarious alternative to actually doing something about the conditions that put all these women at risk?
Frankly, I don't know and I don't care.
Whatever the motivations, I like the idea of affirming these women's too-brief lives, assigning value to humble people who might otherwise conveniently vanish into the tides of forgetfulness that so often afflict our sense of who we are.
Because, like it or not, these women are us. And protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, we are inescapably them, whether we wish to acknowledge the reality or not.
The conditions that gave rise to the circumstances in which they lived and were slain are of our collective making as a society. And forgetting them doesn't absolve us of what we so easily tolerate in our midst.
As a supposedly enlightened society, how did we come to the point that women like these - each one of them somebody's daughter, sister, mother, niece, aunt, lover, friend - become a disposable commodity; used and discarded naked in a dumpster, or left in the gutter, or a junkyard. Because if the victims are ours, so are the victimizers.
Vancouver is not just the glittering high life reported in Malcolm Parry's society column. It's also the low life. Or, to adopt the words of a small first nations girl I met in a tiny northern settlement and whose description I've never forgotten, "the city that eats people."
If we can commemorate women like Emily Murphy, whose indisputable contribution to advancing women's rights in Canada was stained by racism, surely we can accept a few symbolic plaques acknowledging that victims of the society we've created have worth, whatever we may think of their choices and behaviours.
This isn't a suggestion that Murphy isn't worth remembering, too. I disagree with attempts to demolish her reputation. Like this city, the good in Murphy came bundled with the bad, as it does for all of us; just as the women whose names will now be remembered on these plaques had both good and bad qualities.
Life is never a zero-sum game. Life is messy and complicated. Murphy the racist thought prostitution an evil by-product of Asian immigration, yet it was Murphy the reformer's attempt to intervene in a case in which prostitutes had been arrested under questionable circumstances that led to her long-fought campaign for women's rights from which all women now benefit.
These women, whose lives will now be acknowledged as having worth and dignity, were fallible human beings, like us. They may have made some poor, difficult or unavoidable choices, as have all of us. It's important for the rest of us to remember that regardless of those choices, they had value and deserved far more than they received.
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