Not many people in Hamilton hear the name Susan Gourley anymore, and Alissa Watt, founder of the Missed Lives Project, can't help but lament that.
Gourley was a sex worker known to police for drug offences, but too little has been reported about her to form any kind of portrait. She was 38. She had brown hair. She had multiple tattoos, an appendectomy scar, and an eight-millimetre scar on her forehead.
Gourley was last seen around Barton Street and Stirton Avenue in late November 2001. Her disappearance is often linked to the assault and murder of two other sex workers. But so far, her case remains unsolved.
Gourley is just one of the focuses of the Missed Lives Project, Watt's new non-profit agency that deals with missing persons cases — particularly those involving women from marginalized communities — in Hamilton, Halton and Peel. Through the project, Watt and her colleagues aim to not only raise awareness, but provide investigative support with a goal of eventually helping to crack cases.
'If they're homeless or in the sex trade, it's 'what do you expect from that lifestyle' without understanding that there's a reason why people are in those situations.' - Nicky Bomberry, Missed Lives Project board member
Too many cases such as Gourley's go unsolved and unnoticed, Watt said. Plenty of people rally when a white, middle-class person goes missing, she said. But cases that involve aboriginal women and sex workers often fail to inspire the same community action.
The stories of Gourley and others are what motivated Watt to form the project. She has a private investigator's licence and has a masters degree in cultural studies and critical theory from McMaster University.
The early work has been considerable. So far this year, Watt's team has founded a board, launched a website and begun to collate information, all of which is at missedlives.org. It has gained support from multiple places, including the Woman Abuse Working Group, the Hamilton and District Labour Council, the Sexual Assault Centre of Hamilton and Area and two local councillors.
Then this month, the Missed Lives Project became a registered non-profit. Soon, they will start fundraising.
The project's promotional material spells out the need for the attention. Homicides involving aboriginal women and sex workers have a significantly lower solve rate than others, it says. Homicides involving women implicated in other illegal activities have a lower clear rate too.
' I find it really tragic to think that there was a woman found in 1975 in Hamilton and she's been unidentified for 40 years.' - Alissa Watt, founder of the Missed Lives Project
In the public's mind, there's victim blaming, said Nicky Bomberry, an aboriginal healing and wellness co-ordinator with the Hamilton Regional Indian Centre. She's also the project's newest board member.
Blaming the victim
"When you hear stories of someone out drinking, people say 'Oh, well they were partying,'" she said.
"If they're homeless or in the sex trade, it's 'what do you expect from that lifestyle' without understanding that there's a reason why people are in those situations."
One particularly unsettling case, Watt said, is that of a woman found near Lake Ontario in 1975 whose identity is still a mystery.
This woman "doesn't fit the bill of 'ignorable cases,'" the new project website says. She was married, dressed nicely and had custom jewelry, but in 40 years, no one has identified her.
"I find it really tragic to think that there was a woman found in 1975 in Hamilton and she's been unidentified for 40 years," Watt said. "That's crazy to me. That's really overwhelming to think about."
"My hope is to level the playing field to make sure everyone has a voice and everyone is supported regardless of criminal identity. (I want) to make sure everyone in Hamilton knows who Susan Gourley is, and that she's more than a single line about her criminal history."