Lost and Forgotten: Missing and Murdered Sex Workers on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside


  • Jori Dusome University of Alberta




From 1978 to 2002, more than 60 women went missing from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, an area that has often been described as “Canada’s poorest postal code”. For decades, families of the area’s missing women filed police reports and engaged with the media about their vanished loved ones, however little headway was made in the case until ten years later, when the Vancouver Sun began publishing a series of stories on the women that drew provincial and national attention. Motivated by citizen dissent and accusations of negligence, The Vancouver Police Department and the RCMP finally launched a joint task force, resulting in the arrest and conviction of Robert “Willie” Pickton, a pig farmer from Port Coquitlam, for the serial murders of street-involved women. The subsequent excavation of the Pickton property became the largest criminal investigation in Canadian history, spanning several years and costing tens of millions of dollars. However, the danger and violence that plagued women on the Downtown Eastside remained largely the same for many years after Pickton’s arrest. While media coverage narrated Pickton as a single deranged male, this narrative effectively eliminated the context of the broader social background that thrust these women into harm’s way. In this paper, I will discuss the racialization, spatialization, and class distinctions that heavily influence women's participation in the sex trade, as well the media narratives that enable an understanding of Pickton as a violent outlier. The research shows that despite these narratives, violence against marginalized women is a part of the normative social order, which is precisely what allows violent men to function without apprehension in these communities for so long. As you will read, violence against women cannot be described as simply the action of a few bad apples, but is instead a larger part of a “continuum of violence” enacted against already marginalized women.

Keywords: MMIWG, Robert Pickton, sexual violence, street-level sex work