Simons: Bleak case should haunt us.
For 11 years, Delores Dawn Brower was a mystery.
For 11 years, Delores Dawn Brower was a statistic.
For 11 years, she was a name on a list, just one of the hundreds of missing indigenous women whose disappearances haunt our national conscience.
Brower was 33 when she vanished from the corner of 118th Avenue and 70th Street in early May 2004. She was leading what police euphemistically call a “high-risk lifestyle.” The Métis woman was a sex trade worker and drug addict, whose friends called her Spider. But she was also a canny street survivor, who was cautious enough to register with the Project KARE task force, providing the RCMP and the Edmonton Police Service with her medical records, her dental records and her DNA — just in case they ever needed to identify her body.
Her fatalism, sadly, proved invaluable this month when a landowner out walking in the woods east of Leduc, near Rollyview, came across skeletal remains. Relying on those dental records, police have identified them as Brower’s. The medical examiner has not yet determined a cause of death. But Brower was found in the same general area as the remains of three other aboriginal women who had “high risk” lives.
Edna Bernard died in 2002. Her burnt body was found in the wooded area near Rollyview Road, outside Leduc. Katie Ballantyne, 40, disappeared in April 2003. Her body was found in a field east of Leduc three months later. Amber Tuccaro, 20, disappeared in 2010. Her skull was found in the same region in 2012.
No arrests have been made in any of those three cases. But RCMP have long believed that Edna Bernard and Katie Ballantyne were killed by the same person. According to court documents, the police also theorized that the same person was responsible for the deaths of three other sex-trade workers: Monique Pitre, Debbie Lake and Melissa Munch, whose bodies were found in other rural areas outside of Edmonton in 2003.
Over the last decade, two different men — Thomas Svekla and Joseph Laboucan — have been charged in the deaths of other local sex trade workers. Both were convicted, Svekla of the murder of Theresa Innes and Laboucan of the murder of Ellie May Meyer. (Laboucan was also found guilty of the murder of a young aboriginal runaway, Nina Courtepatte.)
Svekla and Laboucan are behind bars, and likely always will be. But we still have far too many unsolved murders. And neither Svekla nor Laboucan could possibly have killed Amber Tuccaro, since they were both locked up when she went missing.
So, is there still some other serial killer out there, our version of Robert Pickton?
It’s a terrifying thought. But here’s another thought, every bit as terrifying. Maybe there isn’t one mastermind responsible for these deaths. Maybe there are instead a disturbing number of different, unrelated men, who all think of sex trade workers as fair game.
“High-risk lifestyle” is a euphemism that cloaks a bitter truth. Prostitution is a deadly dangerous trade. That’s as true today as it was on the streets of London’s East End in 1888, when Jack the Ripper became the world’s first “celebrity” serial killer. And now, as then, women who are battling poverty, addiction and mental illness are the most vulnerable. Escort agencies, “massage” parlours, websites, cellphones — they’ve all reduced street prostitution and reduced overall risk. Yet federal laws, ostensibly designed to keep sex workers safe, actually put them in even more peril.
Of course, we all hope police can one day close these cold cases — difficult though that will be. Yet finding a killer or killers won’t solve the larger social ills that put Delores Brower, Edna Bernard, Katie Ballantyne and their sisters on the street.
In this provincial election campaign, there’s been relatively little discussion of social issues: of homelessness or addiction treatment, of mental health services or the troubled child welfare system, of racial discrimination or economic inequality. They don’t make good debate punchlines. And they aren’t problems with quick or simple solutions. But until and unless we address them, vulnerable women will continue to be exploited.
Delores Brower’s bleak fate should haunt us all, because it indicts us all. Her smiling face on our front page should remind us that this election isn’t about embarrassing texts or debate gaffes. It’s about finding the leadership we need to tackle this province’s most intractable social crises.