In 2002, when investigative journalist Stevie Cameron began work on the story, first publishing The Pickton Files and subsequently On the Farm: Robert William Pickton and the Tragic Story of Vancouver’s Missing Women, as evidence continued to emerge from the muck of the Pickton farm, the story in Vancouver was still one of general disbelief: How could this be true?
How could this have been happening for years under the noses of everyone living in one of the most beautiful, most livable cities not only in Canada, but the world?
How could the number of missing women be so high and the police be so inept—how could this baleful display of disinterest be fact?
It was this sense of disbelief and puzzlement that led movie producer Rupert Harvey to read On the Farm in late 2010, the same year the Supreme Court upheld Pickton’s conviction of six accounts of second-degree murder against his appeal, which lifted a publication ban on court records.
Turning the pages on Cameron’s exhaustive reporting and detailing of the victims’ lives revealed a side to the story beyond the shock of the grotesque. Beyond the details of the sick individual who hunted and killed his victims with such impunity was the portrayal of the victims’ oft-overlooked humanity, their families and personal lives.
By investigating the police response to the Pickton nightmare as it unfolded, Cameron revealed a larger dimension than the local one of a wily psychopath on the loose—this was the portrait of systemic indifference, global in its scale, to women that society willfully abandons at its fringes.
The story began to receive coverage in 2001, notably led by reporting at The Vancouver Sun, followed by newspapers and media attention worldwide. Because of the shocking nature of the murders and the number of victims, the story was covered in sensational detail from Tokyo to Tashkent, from Durban to Durham, striking a horrific chord in every language spoken worldwide.
Shocking and dramatic as the story was, and still is, for Vancouverites, the essential elements of the story – the exploitation and the discounted value of the victims – leads to the realization that the story is much bigger than the sorry sum of its local Vancouver parts. The story of marginalized, disenfranchised minorities and women, illustrated by this perfect storm in Vancouver, is everywhere, lying there for all to see.
After initial meetings between Harvey and Cameron, in early 2011 the book was optioned. It was pitched to the CBC where the executive in charge at the time, rightly recognizing its national as well as international dimensions, immediately gave it a go-ahead for development. It represented the kind of program that the CBC could do best: one redolent with political and social issues, reflecting critical lessons of race relations and moral turpitude in the heart of one of Canada’s major cities.
Illuminating it under the bright lights of Canada’s major and oldest national broadcast network, drawing the widest possible attention to it was of pressing urgency.
From an earlier generation of CBC executives, the executive had seen first hand how in the past CBC had helped propel public opinion and demand for change with, for instance, the 1992 mini-series Boys of St Vincent.
To fully explore the story it was clear that more than one episode was necessary, and development of a two-part series was commenced. Scripts, incorporating material subsequently dropped from the produced single movie – specifically regarding the investigation and trial, were turned in late in 2012.
After a delayed response the word then came down: “We are no longer doing mini-series. We want you to tell the story in a single two–hour movie.”
In early 2013 a revised script was started, compressing the already compressed time frame of events and losing and combining several characters. It was this script that was green-lit for production in late 2013. However, second thoughts occurred, a halt was called, and a major rewrite requested. This time the focus was to be changed again, now with an increased emphasis on the police and their investigation. This meant less time was available for the personal, character stories, but production was duly suspended and the re-write commenced. Eventually the script made it through the starting gate, the ‘blinking green’ light turned full on, and first pre-production steps were taken in November 2014. Production would wrap one year later.
Preliminary casting with multi-award-winning Casting Director Jackie Lind began in November 2014. Jackie was always the first choice for the daunting job of the unusually large cast. However, agreeing to take the job was not easy for Jackie. As with many in Vancouver, she had connections to a victim. Like many who became involved with the film, she wanted to feel comfortable that the story would be treated with dignity and respect and that all attempts would be made to involve the families of the victims and the community of the DTES.
Once she had read the script and embraced the project, casting the 70+ roles began. Her respect within the acting community, her experience, and her personal relationships ensured that the project was seen by top actors and agents – and was not passed over simply based on the assumed approach to the topic. An easy, early choice was Sara Canning to play the cop, Sinead. Having read the script Sara embraced the role and made it her business to spend a night shift in a patrol car with VPD officers as they patrolled and engaged the DTES, introducing her to its night –world, its problems and its populace.
Many cast members initially shied from the project, and one such was Elle-Maija Tailfeathers. However, once persuaded of the approach being taken, at the last minute she agreed to come in to meet. It was the eleventh hour and a decision had to be taken: production was underway and shooting started in two weeks. Jackie insisted a decision be held off until the meeting with Maija, and she was right. Maija nailed it on her first read and after a fast call-back was cast in the lead role of Nikki.
Advocacy Groups Fighting for Missing Women’s Rights
The following organizations are doing the hard work necessary in raising awareness for and advocating on the behalf of missing women around the world. On the Farm also recognizes the unique plight of the women of the First Nations community, a group which continues to be systemically victimized across Canada and globally.
Please visit their sites to gain further insight into the present day plight of missing women and to support the work being done to end this violence, to heal communities, and to bring long-lasting administrative change:
Missing and Murdered Women
A blog dedicated to updated news regarding missing and murdered women in Canada. Follow to stay current on not only stories in Vancouver, but across the nation.
Nobel Women’s Initiative
“The Nobel Women’s Initiative uses the prestige of the Nobel Peace Prize and courageous women Peace Laureates to increase the power and visibility of women’s groups working globally for peace, justice and equality. The Initiative is led by Nobel Peace Laureates Jody Williams, Shirin Ebadi, Rigoberta Menchú Tum, Leymah Gbowee, Tawakkol Karman and Mairead Maguire.”
Native Women’s Association of Canada
“The Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) works to advance the well-being of Aboriginal women and girls, as well as their families and communities through activism, policy analysis and advocacy. NWAC was incorporated in 1974 and is one of the five officially recognized National Aboriginal Organizations (NAOs) whose purpose is to represent and speak, at the national level, on behalf of Aboriginal women in Canada.”
Amnesty International Canada: No More Stolen Sisters Campaign
“Amnesty International stands in solidarity with the families of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls and Indigenous peoples’ organizations to demand real action now to prevent more sisters from being stolen.”
Highway of Tears
“With respect and love for the victims of the Highway of Tears, and guided by their communities, we are committed to fulfilling the 33 recommendations from the Highway of Tears Symposium Recommendations Report. We work diligently towards preventing further victimization, supporting the families of the victims, planning for emergencies and supporting the communities’ efforts towards health and vibrancy.”
“PIVOT’s mandate is to use the law to address the root causes of poverty and social exclusion. Our name is metaphor for our approach to social change – by making the most tangible violations of human rights the focal point of our efforts, we exert maximum pressure in order to shift society toward greater equality and inclusivity.”
Refugees International: Nigeria’s Displaced Women and Girls
“Refugees International (RI) advocates for lifesaving assistance and protection for displaced people and promotes solutions to displacement crises. We are an independent organization, and do not accept any government or UN funding.”
Sex Workers Project (U.S.)
“The Sex Workers Project provides client-centered legal and social services to individuals who engage in sex work, regardless of whether they do so by choice, circumstance, or coercion. As the only US organization meeting the needs of both sex workers and trafficking victims, the Sex Workers Project serves a marginalized community that few others reach. ”
“We offer low-barrier programming and support in order to serve Vancouver’s most marginalized populations; people who often fall through the cracks due to ineligibility for services that require a fixed address or drug and alcohol abstinence can access our services. In this respect, PACE is on the frontline of support for those in Vancouver who need it most.”
Womens Memorial March
“Over the years, the February 14th Women’s Memorial March has expanded to cities across these lands, as well as internationally. The March is an opportunity for all cities and communities to come together to grieve the loss of our beloved sisters and remember the women who are still missing. We encourage all women to journey and heal together by organizing memorials on this day because women, especially Indigenous women, face physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual violence on a daily basis.”
Mexico’s Missing and Murdered (Report)
“The numbers are staggering: Six women killed every day, according to one organization. Over the past two decades, reports BrookeBinkowski in Mexicali, Mexico, the killing or disappearance of women has become so frequent, a new term has entered the country’s lexicon: femicidio.”
Colibrí Center of Human Rights
“The Colibrí Center for Human Rights is a family advocacy nonprofit based in Tucson, Arizona. We work with families, forensic scientists and humanitarians to end migrant death and related suffering on the U.S.-Mexico border. Our work approaches the crisis on the border through a human rights perspective.”
Missing & Murdered: The Unsolved Cases of Indigenous Women and Girls (Report)
An expansive and up-to-date report of missing Indigenous women across Canada. The project is part of CBC’s ongoing investigation into missing and murdered Indigenous women. A database of all unsolved cases is located on this page with current profile information. Over 250 cases are available to search.
National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls
National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls
“The Government of Canada is launching a national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.”
The Association for Women’s Rights in Development
“The Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) is a global, feminist membership organization. For over 30 years we have been a part of the incredible ecosystem of women’s rights movements working to achieve gender equality, sustainable development and women’s human rights worldwide.”
WISH Drop-in Centre Society
“The mission of WISH is to improve the health, safety and well-being of women who are involved in Vancouver’s street-based sex trade. The vision of WISH is that every woman should have access to opportunities to make free, healthy and positive choices.”