How the Robert Pickton case sparked changes to B.C. missing persons investigations

In the wake of the Bruce McArthur case, Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders has said the force is looking at ways to better respond to missing-person reports. Vancouver Police established new standards for such cases following complaints about the Robert Pickton investigation.

Toronto police now also looking at approach to cases as criticism mounts over handling of McArthur case

Serial killer Robert Pickton was convicted on six counts of second-degree murder but is suspected of killing dozens of women who went missing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. Vancouver police were criticized for not taking the cases seriously because many of the missing were sex workers or addicts. (Vancouver Police Dept)

The man who headed up the 2012 inquiry into the Robert Pickton police investigation says he learned that law enforcement would treat missing-persons cases, particularly those involving marginalized communities, as an afterthought.

Wally Oppal, former attorney general of B.C., told CBC News that when mothers, fathers or other relatives would go to Vancouver police to report their loved one missing, they were dismissed.

"And their response invariably would be: 'Well, we don't have time to look for hookers. Your daughter is a drug addict. What do you expect us to do? And, furthermore, she can go missing if she wants and we can't stop her. There's no evidence of foul play.'"​

Pickton was convicted in 2007 of six counts of second-degree murder after the remains or DNA of 33 women were found on his pig farm in Port Coquitlam, B.C., about 25 kilometres east of Vancouver.

Wally Oppal headed up the 2012 inquiry into how police handled the Pickton investigation. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

He was suspected of targeting sex workers and other vulnerable women on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. Many of his victims were Indigenous women, some dealing with addictions or mental health issues.

Alarm bells had been raised for years about the number of women going missing in the area, and the families accused police of ignoring them because of the victims' lifestyles.

That's why Oppal says one of the inquiry's main recommendations was that "where you have a missing person who is vulnerable, the police have a mandatory duty to conduct an investigation," he said.

Toronto case drawing criticism

The Toronto case of alleged serial killer Bruce McArthur and the investigation into the disappearances of gay men has prompted some community activists to question the Toronto Police Service's approach to missing persons and marginalized victims.

For example, the Alliance for South Asian AIDS Prevention has called for a review into whether "the race or perceived sexuality of the missing men affected the resources and quality of the investigation into their disappearances."

McArthur, 66, has been charged with five counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of Selim Esen, 44, Andrew Kinsman 49, Majeed Kayhan, 58, Soroush Mahmudi, 50, and Dean Lisowick, 47.

Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders has said the force is looking at ways it can better respond to missing-persons investigations.

'Huge mea culpa'

In the wake of the Pickton case, the Vancouver Police Department conducted its own comprehensive review.

"They did a huge mea culpa," Oppal said.

The VPD made the missing-persons unit a regular part of the Vancouver police force, he said. As well, the VPD implemented a list of guidelines when investigating such cases, which includes:

  • Starting an investigation without delay.
  • Reporting back to family members on a regular basis.
  • Consulting with family before releasing information to the media.
  • Keeping the file open until the person has been located.

"They've become a lot more proactive, and they are a lot more accountable than they were during the Pickton era," Oppal said.

A number of gay men have gone missing from Toronto's Gay Village, which has some community activists asking if the men's sexuality has 'affected the resources and quality of the investigation.' (John Rieti/CBC)

Criticism of how law enforcement handled those cases and Oppal's report prompted the province to establish similar new standards for missing-persons investigations. 

Diane Caldwell-Demmon said her son Luther Demmon, 25, was last seen in Vancouver on Oct. 22, and was dealing with mental health issues at the time of his disappearance.

She said the detective assigned to her son's case "in a lot of ways has been really great" and would respond very quickly to her inquiries.

"I think that the detective who worked on our case worked very hard to do all the things in his power to do," she said. "I think that he was really hoping that they would find [Luther]."

Luther Demmon, 25, was last seen in Vancouver on Oct. 22, 2017. His mother said police have tried to keep her informed of developments in the case. (Facebook)

However, she said the momentum on the case does seem to be slowing down.

"There's a part of me that says there's a lot of people missing, and obviously, it's incredibly time-consuming trying to track them down. Whether the system is at fault, I don't know."

Angela Marie MacDougall, executive director of Vancouver-based Battered Women's Support Services, credited the Vancouver police force for its efforts in addressing the cases of marginalized missing persons.

"Since the commission of inquiry, even before, there's been a definite shift in the [police] agency in order to respond better," she said.

While there have been, and continue to be, bumps and glitches along the way, police have worked harder to forge relationships with marginalized communities, she said.

"I know they took it very seriously" she said.

Yet MacDougall said she still believes there are biases and negative attitudes toward marginalized communities that police forces need to overcome.

"They're working on it — but police are just a reflection of society, to a point," she said.


Mark Gollom

Senior Reporter

Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.