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When Stevie Cameron contracted to write about the Pickton murders for Knopf Canada, in 2002, she imagined the project might take three or four years. “I remember discussing it with my husband,” she recalled, “telling him that I might have to spend much of the next couple of years in Vancouver.” Cameron, who divides her time between Toronto and the Laurentians in Quebec, was in town recently for the B.C. National Award for Nonfiction luncheon at the Fairmont Pacific Rim; her book about the Pickton case, On the Farm, was a finalist for the $40,000 prize. (John Vaillant won for The Tiger.) “If I’d known it would be nine years before my book was published, I don’t know if I’d have taken it on.”
Cameron had become fascinated by the story in 1998 when, as editor of (the now-defunct) Elm Street magazine, she commissioned Vancouver freelancer Daniel Wood to write about the missing women. She herself had been making a name as one of the country’s top investigative journalists with bestselling books about corruption during the Brian Mulroney years—On the Take, The Last Amigo, and Blue Trust. (Disclosure: I played a role in publishing those titles.) She’s also a Cordon Bleu-trained chef who’d spent 17 years running a soup kitchen at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in downtown Toronto. “So I had some idea of what research might be involved, and I wasn’t scared of dealing with people who were homeless or addicted or mentally ill. I’d seen it all coming through the doors at St. Andrew’s.”
Cameron’s husband, David, chair of the department of political science at the University of Toronto, worried that researching such a gruesome case might “stain her soul.” To be sure, On the Farm is painful to read, an exhaustive catalogue of childhood abuse, drug addiction, institutional indifference, and human depravity. It documents the petty jealousy and bureaucratic bungling behind the botched police investigation. (Kim Rossmo, for example, the first police officer in Canada to earn a doctorate and in worldwide demand for his work in geographic profiling, was shunned by virtually all his VPD colleagues, who resented his education.) And it restores the women to dignified life, one at a time, before sending them to barbaric oblivion.
Yet the undertaking did not stain her, Cameron said-quite the opposite. “It was good for my soul. It was exhilarating. Every time I went home to Toronto I couldn’t wait to come back out. I met the most remarkable people and developed great friendships, with everyone from the coffee lady at the courthouse to the people of the Downtown Eastside. So many people took me in and gave me help and friendship and support. I never once felt, ‘I can’t do this any longer.'”
The book—subtitled Robert William Pickton and the Tragic Story of Vancouver’s Missing Women—is a feat of meticulous research. The chronology Cameron developed to outline it is itself 800 pages long. Her alphabetical names list-identifying everyone connected to the story-exceeds 600 pages. She conducted roughly 700 formal interviews, and ended up with more than 65 colour-coded binders of research notes, transcripts, maps, and clippings, much of it now donated to Osgoode Hall Law School at York University in Toronto. Along the way she photographed everyone and everything, both as an aide-memoire and so that she would have visual material for the book. She felt a tremendous obligation, she said, to find out everything she could about each of Pickton’s victims.
“No girl thinks, ‘I want to grow up to give blowjobs in cars to creepy men.’ But we have so few facilities to help addicted women, no systematic way of helping them. They might go to the WISH Drop-In Centre and say, ‘Help me get off drugs.’ But there are only six detox beds in the Sally Ann. So they go in and, five days later, they’re told, ‘Okay, you’re not shaking and shitting and crying anymore. Away you go.’ But there’s nobody to take them from detox to rehab. And most recovery houses are infested with people selling drugs.”
To complicate matters further, the Hells Angels control many of the hotels in the area, Cameron discovered, and the women sell their tenancy, use the money to get high, and are homeless again. “And yet you can’t say, ‘Let’s just blow up the whole Downtown Eastside.’ It’s a genuine community. Nobody has to be ashamed that they’re addicted or hooking. They share their lives and their stories and they look out for each other.”
Many trial observers were surprised that Pickton’s brother, David, who also lived at the infamous Port Coquitlam pig farm, was not charged. “One of the prosecutors said to me, ‘You should call the book But What About the Brother?‘ Make no mistake, David Pickton is a convicted criminal, a violent, nasty man, a wannabe biker. He pimped for his brother and I think he may have known his brother was bringing home women and killing them. But in the preliminary hearing, and during the trial itself, I never heard a single thing that would tie him to the evidence. There’s no way he would have been convicted on a murder charge.”
What does Cameron know now that she didn’t when she started? “Mostly what I learned is that the women I wrote about, the women of the Downtown Eastside, are just like me, except I’m more fortunate. They’re capable of loving and being loved. They keep up wonderful friendships. They talk about their kids. They miss, they phone, they care. Though they find themselves living in abject poverty, in the grip of a terrible addiction, they’re still capable of joy.”
Cameron is glad that an inquiry has been struck to look into the mishandling of the police investigation. “I think an inquiry is absolutely needed,” she said. “But I think the choice of Wally Oppal to chair it is awkward. As attorney-general, Oppal said publicly he didn’t think a second trial was necessary.
“At the start, Pickton was charged with 27 counts of the first-degree murder. People cried in court when the judge, who in my view was incompetent, severed the counts from 27 to six. They cried again when Pickton-because of a single juror, who probably should have been dismissed-was found not guilty of first-degree murder. After all the years, all the millions of dollars, the crown ended up with six convictions for second-degree murder. Robert Pickton murdered 49 women in a calculated, cold-blooded way. How would you feel if you were a family member of one of the other 43 victims?”