Inheriting Murder

Reviewed by Madelaine Jacobs

Vancouver, BC, is the stuff of Canadian dreams. It occupies a much larger place in the national imagination than its constrained city limits. Imagined geographies of Vancouver stretch from the city on the mainland west to Vancouver Island, east and north to the mountains, and south in relationship to the US. For many, Vancouver is a fascinating touristic landscape of multicultural Canada anchored on Indigenous lands. Vancouver is also the stuff of nightmares. The mention of Robert Pickton conjures images of the murders of women who lived and worked in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and the excavation of the Pickton property. In Remembering Vancouver’s Disappeared Women: Settler Colonialism and the Difficulty of Inheritance, Amber Dean, Assistant Professor of Gender Studies and Cultural Studies at McMaster University, pulls the focus away from the headlines of the Pickton trial and recalibrates the national lens through which the people and place of the Downtown Eastside are viewed.

Remembering Vancouver’s Disappeared Women is an expression of how to engage with, and represent, an extremely difficult subject. It is not a clinical account of the causes and effects of murder. Instead, Dean contends with what she can contribute by examining “what lives on from the violent loss of so many women.” The strength of her interrogation of the representation and remembrance of disappeared women is in maintaining tensions without reinforcing simplistic dichotomies. Many women who disappeared while living in the Downtown Eastside have been identified as Indigenous persons; however, they were not solely, nor simply, racialized “Indians.” These women are often described as “missing,” yet Dean prefers “disappeared” because the systematic colonialism experienced by Indigenous women has been tacitly supported by state inaction. “Disappeared,” indicating a state of being, is widely adopted to signify violent absence beyond its application to state-organized abduction, torture, and murder.

Dean’s consideration of the particularities of the Downtown Eastside recognizes broader experiences of gendered violence in Indigenous nations across Canada. She begins by drawing on the scholarship of geographers to situate disappearance in historical efforts to exert colonial power over Indigenous women in BC and render the spaces they inhabit separate and empty. In chapter 2, the holistic fluidity of Indigenous lifeways, as seen in the “spectral presence” of disappeared women, is set against the lingering ideology of the “disappearing Indian.” Chapter 3 argues that disappeared women are portrayed as “ungrievable” in Canadian society. In chapter 4, the queer(ed) images of “squaw men” and “whores” are juxtaposed with remembering disappeared women as daughters, sisters, and mothers. Chapter 5 describes memorials to the disappeared women and evaluates whether they encourage “practices of inheritance” in the wider public.

Disappeared Women grapples with the inadequate lexicon of the evolving English language. Dean is critical of reductive portrayals that so heavy-handedly attempt to “humanize” disappeared women that they obscure their personal complexity. Dissolution of this reductive filter unseats the “empathy” with which violence is consumed through voyeuristic privilege. Nevertheless, this is not the true meaning of empathy: even when it is well intentioned, this is paternalism wrought through sympathy. Dean proposes an ethical stance as “inheritors” of, rather than witnesses to, violence against Indigenous women. For Dean, this is a fruitful way of understanding how all Canadians are implicated in colonialism without presumptuously claiming the loss experienced by many Indigenous families. All have inherited colonial legacies, yet some are more abstracted from the intimacies of its violence than others. The concept of inheriting is somewhat uncomfortable in this context because it implies receiving something that is intentionally given or passed on through genetic or family ties. Although Dean links inheritance to difficulty and thoughtful action, the term itself connotes passivity. Perhaps Dean is making the point that, as with other types of inheritance, the recipient has no choice over what has been given. Choice is found in what is done with that inheritance.

Dean invested over a decade in the research project that engendered Disappeared Women. While the book is deeply meaningful in its own right, it is apparent that she is on the cusp of something even more substantive. The spirit and skill of Dean’s inquiry lie in her provoking new questions, propelling herself and the reader in new directions, and examining what may be knowable from multiple perspectives. Rather than claiming to be definitive, she rejects the idea that this discussion is in any way over. Dean dissects the construct of completeness with such insight and confidence that she simultaneously demonstrates her instrumental role in this discourse. Anticipation builds for what is yet to appear.

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