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review: non-fiction

Pickton's farm in Port Coquitlam, B.C., Feb. 7, 2002.Richard Lam/The Canadian Press

The wretched saga of Willie Pickton has taken centre stage in British Columbia for more than a decade, capturing our attention in staccato bursts: the escalating disappearance of women from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, the search for a serial killer, the arrest of Pickton, the exhaustive forensic investigation of his Port Coquitlam pig farm, his preliminary hearing and trial, and the ensuing revelations of the grotesque character of his crimes.

Stevie Cameron's On the Farm captures much of this history and more, taking us from Pickton's childhood to his trolling for victims, typically drug-addicted prostitutes, on the Downtown Eastside. She describes the personal histories of many of the missing women: their upbringings in often troubled homes, their difficulties in adjusting to schools and community, their drift into substance abuse and prostitution, and the circumstances of their disappearance, typically lured to the pig farm with the promise of good money and free drugs.

Cameron brings a face and a family to the many women she describes, reminding us, through the simple force of her descriptions, that these were people who often had tenderness and compassion, ongoing intimate connections to their families and, in many instances, hopes and dreams for a better life. Cameron also gives us a compelling portrait of the Pickton family, and particularly Willie: the squalor of the pig farm, the normalcy of their cheating, lying and stealing, and Willie's apparently schizophrenic approach to women. Some, like Lisa Yelds and Gina Houston, would be supported financially and become his friends. Others - dozens of drug-addicted prostitutes of the Downtown Eastside - would be sexually assaulted, murdered and butchered, their bones, teeth, skulls and entrails remaining on his property as testimony to his crimes.

Cameron has done a remarkably meticulous job of providing detail relating to the timeline of the past decade, from Willie's life on the farm and the sad stories of the missing women, to the failed police investigations from 1997 to 2002, leading to greater losses of life (losses that could have been prevented), the police interviews of Pickton, the preliminary hearing and trial, and Pickton's ultimate conviction for second-degree murder.

There are a number of questionable calls in this book, however, and some surprising errors. Cameron is highly critical of the Vancouver Police Department, and this criticism is, in many instances, very well deserved, as the force has acknowledged in its recent Missing Women Investigation Review. But what to make of her claim that "responsibility for investigating any actual crimes fell to the individual police forces where the victims lived or where they disappeared. The largest burden fell on the shoulders of the Vancouver Police Department …"? This is simply incorrect; crimes are to be investigated in the jurisdictions in which they occur - in the instance of Pickton, in Port Coquitlam, by the RCMP.

Cameron quite correctly points out that Kim Rossmo, a detective inspector with the Vancouver Police Department, was one of the first police officers to recognize that a serial killer was preying on the women of the Downtown Eastside. Rossmo was the first police officer in Canada to gain a PhD. A gifted academic and an officer with 18 years of experience, most of it on the streets of the Downtown Eastside, he was treated very badly by a number of his superiors, and his carefully researched conclusions were, tragically, swept aside by an old boys network more attuned to relying on their gut hunches than the science of probability.

But Cameron then goes on to conclude that police chief Bruce Chambers was removed from his post because he was a "protector" of Rossmo: "Rossmo's enemies were determined to get rid of his protector, Chief Constable Bruce Chambers, and in June they succeeded. Two years into a three-year contract, he was fired by the Police Board." This suggestion becomes the linchpin of a good story, but it just isn't true; the removal of Bruce Chambers was not driven by his "protection" of Kim Rossmo, as Rossmo himself would have confirmed.

This is a book that is rich with detail, and it certainly adds to our understanding of the Pickton case and the tragedy of the missing women. What's missing, however, is analysis. While Cameron is to be applauded for providing such a meticulous timeline of events, we don't get a sense of the how and the why. The Vancouver Police Department is heavily criticized, but the actions of the RCMP rarely fall under this microscope.

Ultimately, the reality is much more grey than black and white; both the RCMP and the Vancouver Police Department made mistakes, some attributable to personal conflicts and a corresponding failure to use the best data available, some due to inadequate resources, and some due to the structural difficulties imposed by having multiple police forces in the metropolitan Vancouver region, without any overarching system of command and accountability.

Similarly, while the detailed histories of the missing women bring a humanity to their often unhappy lives, the trajectory of their fall into drug addiction and prostitution is not made sense of, except in relatively simplistic terms: "Janet began living with a boyfriend in Vancouver who was taking hard drugs; before long he had persuaded her to try them too, and the next step was prostitution to pay for their addictions."

By default, Cameron appears to ascribe to a view of drug addiction and prostitution that is deceptively simple: Using drugs will make you an addict, and prostitution lurks just around the corner for those who indulge. The role of criminal law, with its prohibitions against the most vulnerable - street prostitutes and injectable drug users - is never examined, despite the reality that these prohibitions are a crucial part of the backdrop that created the portrait of Willie Pickton and the missing women. Unable to sell themselves with any measure of safety, and forced to pay exorbitant prices for drugs that numbed their pain, they became the victims of a predatory monster.

Should you buy this book and read it? Definitely. I will likely add it to an upcoming course reading list - not because it is the definitive work on the tragedy of the missing women, but because it begins a very useful conversation with a good deal of compelling evidence.

Neil Boyd is professor and associate director of the School of Criminology at Simon Fraser University and the author of seven books. His most recent book, co-authored with Senator Larry Campbell and Lori Culbert, is A Thousand Dreams: Vancouver's Downtown Eastside and the Fight for its Future.

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