September 21, 2011
Just over a year ago, a young Aboriginal woman was brutally murdered in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. On September 15, 2010, 22 year-old Ashley Machiskinic was found dead in the alleyway behind the Regent Hotel after being pushed out of a fifth-floor window. Police at the time refused to acknowledge her death as a homicide.
One year later, police are still unwilling to label Ashley’s death as murder. A Vancouver Courier headline from September 16, 2011 read: “Reward offered in mysterious death case in the Downtown Eastside: Aboriginal woman believed to have fallen from a hotel window.” A recent police report stated that: “The investigation into her death has been exhaustive but has not conclusively determined all of the circumstances that led to her death.”
To those in the Downtown Eastside, Ashley’s death, while tragic, is not mysterious: she is one of many women in the area who are killed or punished in a highly public way by drug dealers who want their debts paid. In this neighbourhood women with drug debts sometimes have their heads shaved or fingers cut off, and Ashley was not the first woman to have been thrown from a window.
The same day the Courier reported the anniversary of Ashley’s “mysterious death case,” another Aboriginal women in the Downtown Eastside was murdered, pushed from a sixth-story window of the same hotel. 50 year-old Verna Simard was found dead on the sidewalk in front of the Regent Hotel this past Friday night, September 16, a year and a day after Ashley’s death. While the news was slow to pick up the story that night, more coverage rolled in over the weekend. References were made to the similarities between the two cases: both women were Aboriginal, and both ‘fell’ from the same hotel in the Downtown Eastside, almost exactly one year apart. Missing in all news reports was any mention of the systemic violence perpetrated against women in the Downtown Eastside, and especially Aboriginal women.
I don’t believe this omission is accidental. Mass media functions to reproduce and define structural relationships of power within a specific ideological framework. In a country based on the violent dispossession and decimation of indigenous peoples, the justification for political and social power is based on the moral superiority and ‘correctness’ of white settler culture, and the need for remaining Aboriginal people to assimilate or suffer the consequences of living on the margins. Through this framework the ongoing structural violence against Aboriginal women is rationalized, while state complicity in this violence remains hidden.
Between 1978 and 2002 more than 60 women living in the Downtown Eastside were murdered or went missing, many of them Aboriginal. Serial killer Robert Pickton was charged in 2002 with 27 counts of first-degree murder, and in 2007 was sentenced to life in prison for the murders of 6 women, though he confessed in jail to killing 49. But the tragedy of missing and murdered Aboriginal women in Canada extends beyond Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. The Native Women’s Association of Canada reports that as of March 31, 2010 more than 580 Aboriginal women and girls have been found murdered or gone missing across the country. In BC, the 800 km stretch of Hwy 16 between Prince George in the Interior and Prince Rupert on the Coast has been dubbed the “Highway of Tears,” due to the number of mostly Aboriginal women who have disappeared or been found murdered along that route. In their 2010 report called “What Their Voices Tell Us,” NWAC declared:
“To address the issue of violence, one must understand the history and impact of colonization on Aboriginal peoples in Canada. It is the ongoing narration of violence, systemic racism and discrimination, purposeful denial of culture, language and traditions, and legislation designed to destroy identity that has led to the realities facing Aboriginal peoples.The overrepresentation of Aboriginal women in Canada as victims of violence must be understood in the context of a colonial strategy that sought to dehumanize Aboriginal women.”
As actors and enforcers of a racist colonial state, the police have consistently denied and failed to act upon violence perpetrated against Aboriginal women in the Downtown Eastside, often writing off suspicious deaths as drug-related overdoses or suicides. Not only do police fail to protect our most vulnerable women, as enforcers of racist laws that criminalize poverty, they are a key part of the violence perpetrated against these women. During the 1990s when women were going missing from the Downtown Eastside at an alarming rate, police consistently dismissed the concerns of family members and friends, operating on the incorrect and fatal assumption that women in the Downtown Eastside constituted a transient and unpredictable population, and would eventually show up.
Why are the recent deaths of Verna and Ashley not being contextualized by mass media within a broader framework of ongoing and systemic violence against Aboriginal women? A recent analysis of the Pickton trial coverage by David Hugill in his book “Missing Women, Missing News” uncovers some of the answer. Hugill observes that in Canada, murders usually generate a lot of media attention, but not in the case of the murdered and missing women in the Downtown Eastside. The news coverage of the Pickton trial centred around four themes: (1) the Downtown Eastside as a criminal environment; (2) stereotypes of women living in the Downtown Eastside; (3) bureaucratic mistakes; and, (4) police negligence. Some of these narratives present pieces of the story, but ultimately fail to explain how so many women could have gone missing before any action was taken. Of the dominant news discourse around Pickton, Hugill writes that, “…the coverage effectively reduces the case to a series of contingencies – albeit an expansive list of them – that camouflage the functioning of structural and cultural systems of domination.”
In his analysis Hugill argues that news narratives are shaped by prevailing “commonsense” ideological frameworks that justify and normalize the victimization of those on the margins. Aboriginal women who are sex workers and drug addicts lead precarious lives, the logic goes, and thus open themselves up to violence through their irresponsible behaviour. This narrative protects the colonial, racist, classist and patriarchal nature of the Canadian state from being exposed.
It is hard to live in a world where human life is valued so differently. The recent police report of September 13, 2011 stated that, “Ashley’s death caused a considerable amount of anguish and concern to all persons in Vancouver,” but is this true? How many people outside the Downtown Eastside know about Ashley Machiskinic and the circumstances surrounding her death? Meanwhile, news of 3 year-old Kienan Hebert’s recent abduction and safe return have dominated national news headlines, and the biggest story on the night Verna Simard was murdered was the death of a beluga whale at the Vancouver Aquarium.
In our frustration with such blatant injustice, many of us too easily dismiss mainstream media as one-sided and heartless, and leave it at that. But if we don’t have a concrete analysis of the purposes such media is intended to serve, we will not be able to expose and destroy the structures of racism, sexism and violence that permeate our socio-political landscape.