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Remembering Vancouver’s Disappeared Women: Settler Colonialism and the Difficulty of Inheritance

By Amber Dean

That Lonely Section of Hell: The Botched Investigation of a Serial Killer Who Almost Got Away

By Lori Shenher

Review By Jules Arita Koostachin

April 1, 2016

BC Studies no. 191 Autumn 2016  | p. 179-183


Statistics confirm that Indigenous women are far more likely to disappear or be murdered than non-Indigenous women in Canada. This horrific truth is exposed in Amber Dean’s Remembering Vancouver’s Disappeared Women and Lori Shenher’s That Lonely Section of Hell. Dean introduces the reader to the complex lived experiences of Indigenous women in Vancouver’s Downtown East Side (DES). She delivers a systematic overview of activism, memorials, and representations, and assesses the multilayered realities and community strategies required to comprehend the impact of violence against women. She carefully weaves together a critique of personal, community, and public responses, specifically the importance of understanding how to counter the unrelenting effects of settler colonialism.

A scholar of Gender Studies at McMaster University, Dean engages readers with a pertinent historical overview of the framework of settler colonialism and contextualizes the struggles of the disappeared and murdered women. Her significant historical overview of settlement in British Columbia includes larger discussions of relocation of Indigenous communities to reserves and the pressures of gentrification on Indigenous urban settings. Against the backdrop of a history that has dehumanized Indigenity, women, and sex work on the DES, she unearths the brutal realities of how the missing women became missing in the first place. Women from the DES are both racialized and sexualized and the violence against them is traumatizing and deep-rooted in settler colonialism. Dean urges the reader to action and into self-reflection concerning what she names implicatedness. She employs research drawn from Indigenous studies, art, and activism to challenge our role in the ongoing violence of settler colonialism. She holds the reader accountable and the community responsible for addressing the injustices and racist discourse of disposability. She asks her readers to think about their place in a frontier mythology. She urges us to address the dominant systems of oppression, including colonialism, racism, heteropatriarchy, and the susceptibility of Indigenous women to the personalized violence of settler colonialism.

Dean creatively applies an intersectional lens to analyze the impacts of colonialism and violence against Indigenous women in Canada. She considers what lives on from the irreconcilable loss of so many women’s lives, women who considered the DES their home. Throughout Remembering Vancouver’s Disappeared, Dean strategically dissects what it means for all of us, Indigenous and settler, who now exist within a settler colonial context. She audaciously urges readers to identify themselves as complacent in these acts of violence against women. Her spirited words motivate readers to partake in the larger colonial discourse with the hope that they will be of one mind and recognize their place within a destructive web of colonialism, violence against women, and ongoing violence against the Indigenous women of Canada.

In That Lonely Section of Hell, Shenher traces the substantial events leading to Robert Pickton’s arrest in 2002. Indeed she builds upon the systemic barriers summarized by Dean to share a personal narrative of the time she was in charge of an under-resourced investigation into the Missing Women case for the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) in 1998, when she struggled with limited support and resources. She conveys her struggles and reveals that she suspected from the beginning that Pickton had murdered the women. Her endless requests for backing and funding were denied. A lack of encouragement from her department resulted in a needlessly slow and grueling investigation. Nevertheless, she captures the tenacious efforts that finally led to Pickton’s arrest. Regrettably, the investigation took a toll on Shenher mentally, spiritually, and physically, but she endured and confronted many obstacles with remarkable courage and perseverance.

Shenher enagages her readers on a subjective level. That Lonely Section of Hell is a first person narrative, an individual reflection of her involvement as a detective with the VPD. She boldly shares the obscurities and complications of working on Canada’s most notorious mass murder investigation and conveys a provocative but necessary criticism of how the police (mis)managed it. She explores the specific historical and systemic obstacles facing Indigenous women, which far surpass those of non-Indigenous women. The high number of murdered and disappeared women from the DES provide background to her personal insights. She describes how the delayed investigation took a personal toll on her overall health. Somehow she found it within herself to plough ahead while delving deep into the causes behind the mounting number of murdered and disappeared women, and while living with the lack of institutional support from the VPD. In the process she found her successful and hitherto fulfilling career in law enforcement crashing down around her as she realized how disorganized and apathetic the police were during the investigation. She discovered with clarity that Indigenous women were targets of violence entrenched in systemic and institutional oppression. Her narrative reflects the anguish, anxiety, and dejection she experienced and her concern for the victims and their families as they made their way on an unaccountably difficult journey for justice. She exposes inexcusable deficiencies in the response to violence against the women of the DES and demonstrates how the system, and how we as a community, have betrayed and failed so many women.

Shenher takes the reader on a personal excursion into Vancouver’s questionable system of law enforcement and into her own subsequent personal experience with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. She puts the victims first while addressing the tricky and harrowing larger questions of law enforcement. Her account of the investigation exposes systemic issues within the VPD, the RCMP, the Canadian legal system, and Canadian society as a whole. They all have much to answer for.

These two extraordinary books, although differing in approach, offer a critical understanding of these specific atrocities and the social realities and colonial discourse that permitted them. As an Indigenous woman, I see and respect the empathy of Shenher and Dean for the women they write about. They provide a platform and create a space for the shattered narratives of women whose voices were ignored and whose communities, sisters, mothers, and daughters continue to be shunned. Shenher and Dean engage with and encourage dialogue about colonialism and institutional oppression. They assert that transformation is still possible, and they convey a painful colonial history which continues to plague many women. They are sincere, empathetic, and fierce in their passion to investigate and reveal such an incomprehensible institutional betrayal and such as excruciating part of Canadian history.

Remembering Vancouver’s Disappeared Women: Settler Colonialism and the Difficulty of Inheritance
Amber Dean
Toronto: University of Toronto Press 2015. 216 pp. $18.71 paper

That Lonely Section of Hell: The Botched Investigation of a Serial Killer Who Almost Got Away
Lori Shenher
Vancouver: Greystone Books 2015. 368 pp. $32.95 paper.