It only took a couple of days for Danielle Boudreau and Bekkie Fugate to find Teri-lynn House once they started looking in early August.
House had been reported missing to the RCMP detachment in Devon, a small community just outside Edmonton, more than a month previously. Her mother, Melanie House, was concerned that her daughter, who has been fighting an addiction, had run away to Edmonton and ended up on the streets. Teri-lynn was eventually found safe in Cranbrook, B.C., but, given the fate of many other missing Native women, her safety was never a sure thing.
Boudreau, a 30-year-old Native woman who has beaten a cocaine addiction, became known to Windspeaker in 2001. She had discovered an especially degrading Web site based in Calgary that posted sexually explicit photos of Native women who clearly were living the hard life on the streets. Boudreau recognized some of the women from her days of partying in the seedier bars in downtown Calgary and worried that the Web site operator might be a budding serial killer who would grow bolder as time passed. She went to the media after becoming frustrated by the lack of interest in the matter on the part of the Calgary police.
She was still in recovery and was not identified in our December 2002 story about the Web site, but she played a key role in the story that was the first to draw national attention to the fact that a disproportionate number of Native women are missing across the country. Some activists say as many as 500 Native women are presently unaccounted for.
We also discovered, while talking to a variety of experts for that story, that there is a class of offender that preys on the marginalized women working the streets in Canada, enabled by the attitudes and biases of mainstream society. The experts told us then that these criminals take advantage of the fact that the public and police have less interest in prosecuting crimes against prostitutes than those crimes that are perpetrated against other citizens.
Since the Windspeaker story, several other national media outlets have looked into the problem.
Books have been published on the subject. The Pickton case in Vancouver, where Robert Pickton has been charged with the deaths of more than a dozen prostitutes, most of whom are Native, is proceeding to trial. In all cases, evidence has emerged showing the police were slow to act.
It was only recently that the RCMP admitted there appears to be one or more serial offenders stalking the strolls of Edmonton. Twelve sex trade workers have been found dead on the outskirts of the Alberta capital over the last 17 years. Most of the victims have been Native women.
On Aug. 11, the RCMP added 10 more investigators to Project KARE, a special task force established in 2003 involving the Mounties and the Edmonton Police Service that is looking into the cases of these murdered women (bringing the total number of officers to 35) . Project KARE has acknowledged 70 victims across the Prairies who lived a "high-risk lifestyle." Many other potential victims are listed simply as missing.
Boudreau's friend Fugate, 22, is a non-Native woman from the small farming community of High Bluff, Man. Outraged by the fact that authorities and the community at large seem to care less about dead prostitutes than about other dead women, she started up a Web site-http://bekkie.proboards52.com-in early August. On that site, people share information and do what they can to help missing women or their families.
Neither Boudreau nor Fugate has ever been involved in prostitution. Fugate joked that her small town childhood was "all butterflies and kittens," but added she can't sit idly by while some lives are deemed less important than others.
After the Devon RCMP had the file on Teri-lynn for more than a month and had produced no results in locating her, Boudreau said she spent just three hours networking on the phone before finding her.
"Sunday we met up with er mother and Wednesday they spotted her in Cranbrook. All that time the police didn't do anything. After we found her they made it out that they'd worked so hard on finding her when in all actuality they'd basically told [her mother] that unless there's a body they weren't going to investigate," said Boudreau.
"No body, no investigation" was also the response the women received from Project KARE investigators when they volunteered to go out scouring the fields on the edge of Edmonton looking for the bodies of other missing women.
Both women noted that the media, the general public and the police did not wait for bodies in a couple of recent cases where middle-class Caucasian women were reported missing. In two high profile cases-one in Edmonton and one in Toronto-great effort was put into searches and, once remains were found within a matter of days, even greater effort was put into raising money for trust funds for the victims' families.
Fugate said that admirable response should not be reserved for only some victims.
"I'd see headlines like: 'Prostitute slain.' And the story was, 'Yeah she was murdered but she was a prostitute so it's OK.' And I thought that wasn't right," she said. "People keep asking, 'Is he going to graduate to killing more respectable people?' Well, who cares? He's killing people. It doesn't matter if he's killing a housewife or a sex trade worker. They're people. They don't deserve to die."
So she went on the Project KARE Web site's electronic forum and, when Boudreau posted the mother's complaints that police were not actively searching for Teri-lynn House, she got an idea.
"I thought, 'How hard is it for us to take a couple of hours on our day off, go out there, talk to her, get some information and make some phone calls.' From there, we were really high off the fact that we had found her within a couple of days and we wondered, 'What if we can do this again and again and again?' Why not? It just makes us feel really goo to help someone who isn't able to get the help they need," Fugate added.
It's more personal for Boudreau. She knew several of the Edmonton murder victims, including Rachel Quinney, a 19-year-old whose body was found outside the city in June 2004. Quinney was married to Boudreau's best friend's older brother. She knew the Quinney family when she was growing up.
"The day they found the body I was on the phone with [her best friend] and she said 'I've got a call on the other line.' I said I'd wait. She came back on and said, 'You know that body they found? It was Rachel.' I couldn't believe it. I remember her as little Rachel. I was pretty broken up,"
The two women have asked the police to let them help them search for other missing women. Their requests have been denied by investigators who worry that untrained amateurs could contaminate a crime scene and destroy important evidence.
"What's the difference between us coming across something and someone walking their dog?"
Boudreau asked. "Teach us what to do. If you guys don't have the manpower to do it, we'll go out in our spare time and then at least something's being done. Have the police ever found any of the bodies or has it always been someone stumbling across something?"
"Give us a day's training or send a police officer with us. Have someone with us so that you know we're not doing anything to mess up the case," Fugate added. "And we'll go out and do whatever needs to be done. I just don't understand why they're not willing to even attempt to help."
But the differences in the level of public sympathy for middle-class victims versus desperate, impoverished and frequently drug-addicted victims who are forced into prostitution to survive remains glaring-and hypocritical, the two women said.
"The thing about prostitution is it all comes back to religion, basically. Sex is known as a sin," said Boudreau.
Boudreau knows well that young girls flee the much-publicized econmic and social problems back home on the reserve in search of a job or an education. They come to the cities and-for a number of reasons, not the least of which is racism-frequently find themselves unemployed and struggling. Cheap and highly addictive drugs like crystal meth and crack cocaine are a rapidly spreading scourge in the inner cities where these desperate people almost always end up.
Prostitution all too often becomes the only way to survive. And even then, poverty increases the chances of tragic death.
"Prostitution isn't illegal. Solicitation is illegal, which just seems silly to me. But if prostitution is legal, then why not get these women into somewhere safe? These women that are on the street, don't make them pay $1,700 a year to register themselves as an escort," Fugate said.
That's the approximate cost of a license to run an escort service in Edmonton. The money is payable to the city. Also required is a criminal record check. If you've been convicted of solicitation, you get rejected and you get to stand on a street corner with all the dangers that brings. But if you've got $1,700 a year for a city license you can be a great deal less marginalized and a whole lot safer.
Monica Valiquette has operated an escort service in Edmonton for 27 years. She told Windspeaker the city fathers know what goes on in these businesses they regulate and license.
For the community to look down on prostitutes while taking their money is pure hypocrisy, she said. And city regulations that allow only those that have the $1,700 a year and have managed to avoid conviction to have the relative safety of escort work makes the city complicit in the harm that befalls those forced to work the streets, she added.
"I just feel the communities have blood on their hands," she said. "There was a case a few years back where one of the girls was suing the city for living off the avails of prostitution, but it just turned into a mess in the courts."