Woman who survived B.C. serial killer lifts up 'sisters' still on the streets

CeeJai Julian now realizes she can never bring back her friends and "sisters" who were killed, so the survivor of the Pickton pig-farm murders in the 1990s has transformed her guilt of living into providing support to women still on the streets. This week, she's providing health support at community hearings in Richmond, B.C., of the inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

CeeJai Julian is helping women who are testifying at the MMIWG hearing in Richmond, B.C.

CeeJai Julian, Beaver Clan from the Carrier Nation, is working on the health support team at the community hearings in Richmond, B.C., of the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG). (Jon Hernandez/CBC)

CeeJai Julian remembers when she first got clean, standing up in 12-step meetings feeling guilty for being alive, when so many of the "sisters" she knew from the streets were gone.

"I used to question why am I alive and they're not," she said.

Julian was living and working in the sex trade in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside at a time when women were growing increasingly terrified for each other, knowing a serial killer was preying on them.

She herself was taken to the notorious pig farm owned by Robert Pickton in Port Coquitlam, B.C., in the 1990s, but managed to escape.

I used to question why am I alive and they're not?- CeeJai Julian

It wasn't until years later, in 2002 when Pickton was arrested, that she realized who she had gotten away from that day.

"I had no idea until I'd seen an aerial picture of the farm and then, woosh, flashback. I was just shaking, couldn't even pick up a cup. I was shaking. That's the bad date I had. I ran. I ran for my life, right?"

But Julian has come to realize she can never bring back her friends and sisters who were killed, so has transformed her guilt of living into providing kindness and support to women still on the streets.

"If I can save one person's life, in a sense not save them, but support them, help them, lift them up — it's helping me heal. It's a good day. It's a good day."

It has been more than 16 years since Julian got off the streets and started her healing journey, coming to terms with a lifetime of pains related to intergenerational trauma, sexual abuse in the child welfare system, aging out into a life of substance abuse, and work in the sex trade, where she experienced a tremendous amount of loss.

Today, she works with Vancouver Coastal Health's Women's Intensive Case Management Team, offering peer support in the Downtown Eastside on a team that brings health-care services to some of the most marginalized women in the country.

But this week, Julian is taking a break from her frontline work to provide health support to those testifying at the community hearings in Richmond, B.C., of the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG).

Julian hugs Brenda Wilson, a longtime advocate for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC)

'We're so grateful to her'

The rooms and halls of the Sheraton Hotel in Richmond have become the scene of many bittersweet reunions this week, as families and survivors reconnect and tell their stories before the inquiry's commissioners and statement takers. 

"Probably more than half of the testimonies I feel like relate to the Downtown Eastside," said Julian, reflecting on all of the public and private hearings throughout the week.

Julian won't be testifying at the hearings in Vancouver. She gave testimony privately during the inquiry hearings in Thunder Bay, Ont., in December.

Probably more than half of the testimonies I feel like, relate to the Downtown Eastside- CeeJai Julian

She said she decided to testify in Ontario for safety concerns. But that has also allowed her to play a much different role at the hearings in Vancouver, as a health support and a witness.

Of those testimonies, many also have connections to victims of Pickton.

Among the first to testify were sisters Cynthia Cardinal and Bonnie Fowler, who flew to Vancouver from Alberta to share  about the life and loss of their sister, Georgina Papin.

Papin and Julian were friends and got to know each other well when they were living in the Downtown Eastside, in their addictions.

Cardinal and Fowler remember meeting Julian when they came to Vancouver for Pickton's second-degree murder trial. Their sister was among the six women Pickton was ultimately convicted of murdering.

"[We] were introduced to her and found out that she knew our sister really, really well. And she was so easy to talk to, she just embraced us, like she knew us already," said Cardinal.

"She just gave us that support that, you know, you're cared for and that felt really good and then we just, loved her."

Bonnie Fowler and Cynthia Cardinal travelled to Vancouver from Alberta for the inquiry community hearings. The two founded the organization Edmonton Sisters 4 Sisters to honour Georgina Papin. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC )

While Cardinal and Fowler gave their testimony at the inquiry, Julian sat behind them along with other health support workers and friends of the family. It was a collective experience that brought strength and healing to all involved.

Fowler said that when she sees how Julian has been able to overcome her past, it's like watching a miracle before her eyes.

"All the stuff she's been through really made her into a beautiful strong woman warrior. I'm very proud of her," said Fowler.

All the stuff she's been through really made her into a beautiful strong woman warrior.- Bonnie Fowler

For Julian, being in this role among the families of so many of the women she loved is both triggering and healing.

"When I'm sitting by the family member, fanning them with my eagle fan and bringing water and tissue to them, it's like I'm helping them and they're helping me not stay in that survivor's guilt. They're helping me heal.

"This is why I'm alive. Because I get to be of service to them."

'Lifesaving services' in Downtown Eastside

When the inquiry wraps on Sunday evening, Julian will head back to her Vancouver home, where she lives and cares for her mother. She'll take a day to rest up and will be back to work on the Downtown Eastside on Tuesday.

The contribution she makes as a peer specialist is not lost on those at Vancouver Coastal Health.

Bonnie Wilson, director of community health services for the health authority, calls the role of peer support workers like Julian "absolutely vital and critical."

She said they're often the reason individuals will agree to go to a clinic or access necessary health services.

"I feel that it's not overstating things when I say that for some individuals, that's been one of the lifesaving interventions, is that connection with a peer whose actually been the one that has been able to bridge that gap and help an individual connect to a critical, if not lifesaving services," said Wilson.

Julian is shown at a memorial for overdose victims in the Downtown Eastside in September 2017, 20 years after she attended one where she made crosses for the same cause. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

While things have changed quite a bit since the days when Julian was living in her addiction and working in the sex trade, she said there's certainly a parallel of loss between the 1990s and today, most notably because of the opioid crisis.

Once again, she's concerned when she sees someone she knows and cares about on the streets.

"If I see them, I either greet them with my eyes, I hug them, I acknowledge them, because in reality, I don't know if that's going to be the last time I'll see them, because the fentanyl, it's like a killing field down there."