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'It hurts': First Nations leader says little change for women's safety since Pickton murders

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An Indigenous leader in British Columbia says little has changed since the crimes of serial killer Robert Pickton, as community members reflect on news that he is in life-threatening condition after being attacked in prison.

Chief Marilyn Slett with the Heiltsuk Tribal Council in Bella Bella, B.C., says discussion about Pickton after the assault at a Quebec prison on Sunday has revived painful memories for the Indigenous community.

Slett, who is also secretary-treasurer at the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, says Indigenous women still face a barrier of systemic racism when it comes to personal safety and access to the justice system when they are victims of crimes.

Pickton was convicted of six counts of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison in 2007 after being charged with the murders of 26 women, many of them Indigenous.

Correctional Service Canada confirmed Tuesday that Pickton was the inmate injured in a "major assault" at the maximum security Port-Cartier Institution, about 480 kilometres northeast of Quebec City.

Slett says governments can do better, pointing to the $15 million in federal funding allocated to a three-year program targeting auto theft, compared to $1.3 million for a pilot alert system when an Indigenous woman or girl goes missing.

"It hurts to see that, in terms of resources that the Canadian government is putting towards our women and our girls and two-spirited people," Slett said. "So progress is very small.

"The work will not be over until things like the Red Dress Alert is no longer needed in this country, and we're a long ways away from that."

The remains or DNA of 33 women were found on Pickton’s farm in Port Coquitlam, B.C., and he once bragged to an undercover police officer that he killed a total of 49.

"His profile is still being raised and talked about," Slett said about the attention that Pickton's assault has attracted.

"Yet it's the women, the victims and families that are hurting today and still seeking justice for their families and their loved ones. And I can understand how people would feel (about) what happened to him.

Tammy Lynn Papin, whose sister Georgina Papin was murdered by Pickton, echoed Slett's sentiments that more needs to be done to protect Indigenous women.

“They need to give more funding for organizations to help with the human trafficking for the missing and murdered women,” said Papin.

“I have a strong family like my sisters and my brother that are alive and you know we've all been through a lot of stuff in our life, but we are survivors and very resilient women and men.”

Slett said advocacy work from her and others in the First Nations community will continue, but all levels of government need to boost spending on items such as grassroots support for families as well as transportation services in rural communities to ensure Indigenous women and girls are safe.

"We need to make sure that federal ministers, the prime minister and the premier are hearing directly from families," she said. "They need to hear the support that's required for the families that are left trying to seek justice for their family members."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 22, 2024. 

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