Over eight years, award-winning journalist and author Stevie Cameron researched and wrote two books about the case of convicted serial killer Robert William Pickton – The Pickton File, published in 2007, and On The Farm:Robert William Pickton and the Tragic Story of Vancouver’s Missing Women, published in 2010. Since then, Ms. Cameron has continued to follow the case and the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry, headed by former B.C. attorney-general Wally Oppal. Mr. Oppal’s report from the inquiry into how Mr. Pickton was able to get away with his crimes for so long is to be released today. Ms. Cameron, who lives in Toronto, is now working on a book about the history of Kingston Penitentiary.
What are you hoping the Oppal report accomplishes?
I hope it comforts families of the missing women who see their fears and concerns and anger and all of those things were understood and have been taken into account as he brings this report out. I think that he cared very much and I know his staff cared very much and I think this will be reflected in his report. As a reporter, I didn’t have access to the information Commissioner Oppal had. He and his colleagues heard testimony and had a chance to have information that was never available to me and is still not known to me. I’d like to know more about how the Vancouver Police Department failed the women. Similarly, with the RCMP, why it took so long to get somebody on that farm? I want to know why the situation in the Downtown Eastside is not much better than it ever was, why women are still suffering there, why addiction treatment is not available for them, why the Downtown Eastside just jogs along the way it did when I went out there, what 10 or 11 years ago? From my recent visits, I don’t see what’s changed.
There is no predator like Mr. Pickton though…
Not right now, perhaps, but there are lots of Mr. Picktons around. Mr. Pickton was extreme, I grant you that, but there are a lot of vicious human beings around who traffic these women. I wonder if Wally Oppal’s report will deal with these issues and perhaps offer advice and very strong recommendations so that all of these issues are dealt with.
Mr. Oppal’s process has been criticized. Do you think the report, despite that criticism, still has value?
Of course it does. Vancouver Police were held to account during his investigation. I sat there and watched them squirm while they tried to explain themselves and brought in big shot lawyers – in one case anyway – from Ontario, of all places, to try and defend themselves. I would be very interested to know what he’s going to say about police who ignored the problem and then tried to duck and weave at the end. That’s a very important issue to be looking for. I believe it has value. I have already looked online at a lot of the work they have done, including forums with family members, major efforts to reach out to the families, to the workers working with these women in the Downtown Eastside now, to all kinds of groups to get their advice and their input. Because I had the opportunity to attend the inquiry for awhile, I could see and talk to a lot of people involved there. I could see the commitment they had, the intelligence and the compassion [commission staff] had. I have great confidence and can see there will be a lot of value in this report.
Did you have earlier concerns about Mr. Oppal that have changed as you have seen the way he conducted himself?
Yes. I didn’t know enough about him. I didn’t think he had taken it seriously at the beginning but I know from being there, watching him, listening to his questions and his fury when somebody didn’t take something seriously that he understood the issues very clearly and I felt he was in control, he knew exactly what he was doing and listening hard. He didn’t suffer fools lightly. Ultimately, I knew it really mattered to him.
Some people may distance themselves from all of this, saying it only happened in a particular part of British Columbia. Why do you think members of the public should pay attention to this report?
Because it isn’t just in Vancouver. I live in Toronto and I’ve spent nearly 20 years running a soup kitchen at my church. That’s the experience that allowed me to go out to Vancouver and work on this story. If I hadn’t done that, I think I would have been out at sea, but I see the problems here. I see the homelessness. We have the same things here. We have girls coming and been trafficked. Don’t misunderstand my use of the word girls. We call them girls. I have two daughters. They are my girls. These women became my girls. So we have the same problems here and I am hoping people will have a broader perspective. It’s not just that terrible place in the Downtown Eastside. It’s across Canada and maybe we can learn lessons from this commission for all these places where women are treated like this.
What lingering effect has this story had on you?
Gratitude for the opportunity to do it. It is the most important thing I have ever done in my life. I loved meeting the families. I loved meeting the people in the various communities. I enjoyed every minute of it in a way because it was such a huge challenge. The people, in a way, were so amazing, particularly the women in the streets downtown. One of the very best things that ever happened to me was the opportunity to meet the women who were working the streets in the Downtown Eastside and see them offering their hospitality to me, their friendship to me, their stories to me. I am so grateful for the opportunity to have been able to write that both books. If I never wrote another book, it would have been enough.
This interview has been edited and condensed.