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Book Reviews

That Lonely Section of Hell: The Botched Investigation of a Serial Killer Who Almost Got Away

by Lori Shenher

Stolen Sisters: The Story of Two Missing Girls, Their Families and How Canada Has Failed Indigenous Women

by Emmanuelle Walter; Christelle Morelli (trans.); Susan Ouriou (trans.)

The title of Stolen Sisters, the Governor General’s Literary Award–nominated translation of last year’s Sœurs volées, refers to two Amnesty International reports – 2004’s Stolen Sisters, and 2009’s No More Stolen Sisters. Debut author Emmanuelle Walter draws on these and 21 other reports about violence against indigenous Canadian women and girls, highlighting some alarming statistics: 1,181 indigenous women were murdered or went missing between 1980 and 2012; indigenous women are seven times more likely to be murdered than non-indigenous women; 90 per cent of underage sex workers are indigenous; and so on.

That Lonely Section of Hell Lori ShenherThe author delves into the realities behind these numbers. Her focus ranges from the issue of residential schools creating generations of broken lives and families (something that has only recently come to be better understood outside of indigenous communities themselves) to matters most Canadians hardly consider: for example, the way lack of public transportation, especially in remote regions, results in danger to disadvantaged indigenous people, who often must resort to hitchhiking – in particular on B.C.’s notorious Highway of Tears.

The statistics and sociological observations form the background for a book that foregrounds the plight of specific individuals. Walter mentions scores of victims from across Canada, but focuses on Maisy Odjick and Shannon Alexander, two Quebec teens who vanished in 2008. Their families continue to grieve and fight for the justice Walter demonstrates is often denied indigenous people.

Through numerous conversational interviews with those closest to them, Walter goes some way toward revealing who Odjick and Alexander were – beyond mere government statistics, question marks in police files, and names in the media, which often reduce missing and murdered indigenous women to “types” engaged in risky behaviours.

The seemingly disorganized and indifferent police response to the disappearance of these young women comes in for particular scrutiny. Walter argues that officers from the four jurisdictions working the case held the view that, like other indigenous youth with unstable home lives, these young women would eventually “turn up.” This attitude, the author points out, contributes to lower rates of clearance in such crimes, which in turn leads those who regard vulnerable indigenous women as easy targets to believe that crimes against them carry few, if any, consequences.

Stolen Sisters Emmanuelle WalterStolen Sisters is a powerful and effective primer on the subject of Canada’s missing and murdered indigenous women within the broader context of centuries of institutionalized racism against First Nations peoples. Despite the diminishing effect of flitting between reportage, conversations, anecdotes, and analysis across what is essentially a very brief text, Walter’s book is undeniably powerful.

Among the victims Walter touches upon are those who died at the hands of serial killer Robert Pickton, who preyed upon sex workers in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside until his arrest in 2002. That Lonely Section of Hell takes this case as its subject, but does so from the insider’s perspective of its author. The book is a memoir by the detective who led the Vancouver Police Department’s investigation into a disturbing spate of missing sex workers. From her bright start with the force to her struggles in spearheading a poorly resourced investigation, testifying at the consequent Missing Women Commission of Inquiry, and burning out from PTSD, this is defiantly Lori Shenher’s story.

Shenher’s heart bleeds onto the page at times, but it bleeds for the victims and their families. Above all, her book reveals an appalling lack of concern for Vancouver’s drug-
addicted sex workers – both those who vanished, and those who remain at risk – by many at the VPD and RCMP. The various police forces in charge of the investigation often expected, as Walter suggests, that these missing women would simply turn up, or, worse, had reaped what they had sown.

Shenher was a reporter in rural Alberta before joining the VPD; her book bears the marks of both her journalistic and police background – it is precise, detailed, chronological – but the writing style is somewhat pedestrian. Still, the fact that it’s very readable, and remarkably free of lurid detail, enables the memoir to deliver its message with honesty and direct force.