Michele Pineault remembers the phone call she received in the summer of 2014. It was a Victim Services worker, telling her the Coroners Service of British Columbia needed to talk to her, that they would be calling.
Michele remembers sitting at home for hours, days, then weeks, waiting for the phone to ring. All that time, she was going crazy wondering what it was they needed to tell her. Her first thought? They had made a mistake. That the DNA of her daughter, Stephanie Lane, had perhaps not been found at a crime scene—the devastating end to a six-year search.
Finally, Michele got fed up and made the call herself.
"You cannot do this to a mother," she remembers telling the person at the other end of the line. She thought the investigation into her daughter's disappearance had come to an end—a painfully unsatisfactory end, but an end nonetheless. But now this? "You're torturing me all over again... I don't know what the hell's going on."
Michele remembers the call from the Coroners Service that came shortly after.
It was a man—she doesn't recall his name—who told her that they had remnants of Stephanie in their possession. They'd found pieces of Stephanie's bones on infamous serial killer Robert Pickton's farm.
That fall, Michele received two of Stephanie's vertebrae and an inadequate explanation: the RCMP and then the BC Coroners Service had kept the pieces of bone in a storage facility from 2002 to 2014. Why had it taken more than a decade for them to be delivered to Michele? There was no answer, just a statement that the delay could not be explained.
At first, Michele wasn't sure what to do with her daughter's remains and she couldn't think clearly enough to process what she'd been told about why it had taken so long for her to receive them.
It was not until January 2015—18 years after Stephanie's disappearance, and nearly half a year after Stephanie's remains were delivered—that Michele felt she had to speak out.
Stephanie Lane was born in the spring of 1976 and disappeared in the winter of 1997. Her mother Michele Pineault, who was just 17 when she gave birth to Stephanie, remembers that day and the days that followed. "We grew up together," Michele recalls.
Stephanie was a mercurial child, but a solid achiever through grade school: she won solos in the church choir and starring roles in school performances, and she was a straight-A student. Years later, when Stephanie's younger brother attended his sister's alma mater, a teacher told Michele: "You know, in your lifetime you're lucky to [teach] one gifted child... I had that in Stephanie."
But in high school, something changed; a switch was flipped. To rouse Stephanie from bed in the morning, Michele often had to dump water on her.
"She was so, so smart," Michele recounts, but, "she missed the most classes in the school's history."
Stephanie switched schools twice, but her apathy endured.
At 18, she asked her mother if she could go on a weekend trip to Kamloops with a friend—a friend Michele knew was stripping to save money for school. Michele didn't want her to go, but ultimately agreed: "If I said no, she'd go anyway."
Before that weekend was out, Stephanie called home to say she had started stripping. Michele was shocked, but also resolved to maintain the open relationship she'd always enjoyed with her daughter. And she did: as Stephanie began dancing in Vancouver under the stage name "Coco," Michele would make sure her daughter ate.
"Coco," they'd announce over the speakers, "your mom's here with your dinner."
In high school, Stephanie had been an occasional pot smoker. Now, she drank. She started doing heroin. And at 19, she got pregnant.
Stephanie was 20 when her son was born, her boy slightly addicted to heroin. She had planned to put the baby up for adoption, but Michele—who held him and named him—asked for custody. She worried that the boy's adoptive parents might give up on him, and that she might lose track of him in the system, never to find him again.
"You have these illusions of white picket fences, and that he's going to get adopted by a rich family," Michele cajoled her daughter. "That may not happen. So, please, please, please let me have him and I'll take care of him."
The boy entered foster care, but after less than two months, he came home to Michele on a temporary basis. Whenever Stephanie came by for a visit, she would lean in, swinging her long hair in front of his face, telling her little boy he was "mummy's baby, mummy's baby, mummy's baby." He would raise his little hands to grab the dark strands of his mother's hair.
Michele would simply watch. "It was just the joy of my life," she says.
When Stephanie's son was five months old, Michele gained full custody. There was no more talk of adoption now. Michele believed her daughter would eventually come home for good to raise the boy herself.
But months later, in January 1997—with Michele just days into a new, tough-love style of parenting—Stephanie disappeared, never to return.
"The guilt that I feel..." says Michele, almost two decades later.
It wasn't until six years later, following a major break in 2002 during the police probe into the disappearance of 50 women—including Stephanie—from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside district that Michele received the news that broke her heart. Victim Services came to tell Michele that her daughter's DNA had been found on Robert Pickton's farm
On February 5, the RCMP searched Pickton's farm looking for illegal firearms. Pickton was arrested and released in the morning—but while searching his farm, officers discovered one of the missing women's inhalers.
In the days following, as police combed the farm, stories began to appear in the press: the discovery of DNA on the farm and allegations that police ignored the case for so long because many of the women were sex workers or used drugs.
Pickton was arrested on February 22 in connection with the disappearances. Police escalated their search of his farm in the months to come.
After the arrest came the phone calls. Michele grew to hate reporters. She got one phone call, then another, always asking the same question: Did the police call you about your daughter?
She realized the reporters were following a process of elimination, "phoning everybody to find out who they actually found on the farm."
After the visit from Victim Services, Michele changed her phone number and stopped reading the newspapers.
"I just totally shut myself off," she says, "and I relied quite heavily on the bottle to get through."
Searchers: Highway of Tears
Robert Pickton's trial began on January 22, 2007, almost five years after his arrest. He would face only six murder charges, though he stood accused of 20 more—the trial judge having separated the six from the 20, reasoning that to try that many cases simultaneously would be unmanageable for the jury.
Pickton did not face trial in Stephanie's case.
During the trial, the Crown called 98 witnesses; the defence 31. The process lasted nine months. Michele only managed to sit in court for one week; it was simply too hard.
On Dec. 9, the jury found Pickton guilty on six counts of second-degree murder in the deaths of Sereena Abotsway, Mona Wilson, Andrea Joesbury, Brenda Ann Wolfe, Georgina Faith Papin, and Marnie Frey. The judge sentenced him to life in prison with no chance of parole for at least 25 years. The 20 outstanding murder charges were stayed. Pickton had already received the harshest sentence possible—at the time—under Canadian law.
Shortly after Pickton's final appeal was denied in the summer of 2010, the government of British Columbia announced The Missing Women Commission of Inquiry. It was tasked with probing the police investigations into the disappearances of the women in the Downtown Eastside, and with investigating the charges stayed against Pickton for assaulting a sex trade worker years before his final arrest.
The Commission uncovered many problems, including: barriers for families reporting loved ones missing, gaps in investigations and families kept uninformed throughout, systemic bias, and multijurisdictional investigation issues.
But despite these nods to the victims and their families, the Commission's focus was squarely on the police: their investigations and changes that they should make when conducting investigations.This focus was evident long before the final report was delivered. Indigenous groups withdrew from the process and the independent lawyer appointed to represent indigenous interests following the withdrawals later quit, saying that while a disproportionate number of missing murdered women were aboriginal, she regretted that she "could not find a way to bring the voices of the missing and murdered aboriginal women before the commissioner."
In 2012, as the Commission delivered its final report, the BC Civil Liberties Association, West Coast LEAF, and Pivot Legal Society published a report of their own. Blueprint for an Inquiry concluded: "If nothing else, this Inquiry demonstrates what should not be done in conducting a public inquiry involving marginalized communities."
For Michele, who attended the inquiry even though she didn't want to, the low point of the experience was the revelation that the commissioner, Wally Oppal, spent one of his weekends during the inquiry filming a role in a movie about a serial killer.
"That's the most disgusting thing I've ever heard," she says,"I think I came out of there more traumatized than I was going in."
Her words are a potent reminder about all that could—but must not—go wrong as the new Canadian government begins discussions about the much-anticipated national inquiry into the epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women.
Fay Blaney is the co-chairwoman of the Women's Memorial March Committee. She is Xwemalhkwu from the Campbell River, but works in the Downtown Eastside.
It's partly the failure of the BC inquiry that has her worried. Little was gained from that inquiry, she says. BC's Auditor General is now investigating the status of the implementation of the inquiry's recommendations.
For a national inquiry to be done right, she says, it needs to start with the women and it needs broad terms of reference fleshed out in consultation with indigenous women and organizations of all shapes and sizes across the country.
"We really do need to address root causes," Blaney says. "The ones that will know what the root causes are, are the Indigenous women."
She'd like the inquiry to be explicit in its terms of reference: this is about violence against women, specifically Indigenous women. Colonialism and racism are issues, she agrees, but problems have often been framed as such at the expense of talking about gendered violence.
Blaney is now waiting to see whether—and with whom—the government consults ahead of the inquiry. That, she says, will be the first indication of its eventual success or failure.
The government is currently consulting with Canadians about the pending inquiry and the Department of Indigenous Affairs says, "we hope to make an announcement about the process for the design of the inquiry shortly."
Regardless of the "design," the government needs to follow through on the inquiry's recommendations, says Kendra Milne, director of law reform with West Coast LEAF, which co-authored Blueprint for an Inquiry.
"It's crucial that the federal government commit at the outset to act on any recommendations that come out of the inquiry," Milne says. "What will not be useful is another lengthy and expensive process that develops recommendations that are then just ignored."
On January 28, 2015, wearing a T-shirt with her daughter's smiling face and the words "Am I Next?" written above it, Michele spoke to members of the media assembled in Vancouver. Through tears, she recounted more than 15 long, bitter years.
She said she'd been told in 2003 that Stephanie's DNA "was found on the Pickton farm, it was found in a significant spot and if there had been more it would have been enough to charge him with, so I accepted that."
But now, having received Stephanie's remains, she says: "Two pieces of her vertebrae was certainly enough to charge him... There is evidence to prove that he murdered my daughter and I want Robert Pickton charged with my daughter's murder."
In a January statement, the B.C. Coroners Service said the remains weren't new evidence. There have been no new charges.
"The sole issue is the unfortunate delay in returning the remains," the statement reads. "The Coroners Service regrets it cannot explain this delay as none of the current senior management team were in their positions at the time, and those who were involved are no longer employed by the Coroners Service."
Even if Pickton isn't charged again, Michele wants to know why it took more than a decade before she received Stephanie's remains.
"They call it an oversight," she says of her correspondence with the department in the months since, all in the hope of more robust answers. "I call it a fuck up."
Michele moved into a new home in Surrey, BC a few months ago.
On a mantel near her door, she has placed her photo of Stephanie and her drum from Butterflies in Spirit—a dance troupe that raises awareness about missing and murdered indigenous women. She has placed a photo of mother and daughter together, taken when Stephanie was a toddler, and next to a photo of Stephanie with her own toddler son. In the photos, everyone looks content.
In the cabinets behind the dining room table, Michele has placed a black angel with a bouquet of sunflowers. It was a gift from a friend to honour Stephanie—half black, half Indigenous and gone too soon—and to acknowledge the last perfume she wore: Sunflowers by Elizabeth Arden for Women.
It's been more than a year since Stephanie's vertebrae were returned to Michele. They wait in their clear tubes in their clear plastic bags in a purple box decorated with butterflies.
Michele's grandson, Stephanie's only child, has a plan to say goodbye. They'll go to the Vancouver park where there's a memorial bench with Stephanie's name on it. It's where they've gone every year on Stephanie's birthday. Sitting on the bench, they'll release little lanterns into the sky.
Not yet. Michele is hesitant: there have been so many mistakes, who's to say there hasn't been another? What if the vertebrae she received aren't actually Stephanie's?
"There is absolutely no doubt about the identification," said a spokeswoman for the BC Coroners Service via email, adding that this has been explained to Stephanie's family.
But Michele's continuing her fight to have the remains reexamined and the details of how and where and when mistakes were made released.
"There are too many errors," she says, "and I took them at face value. I trusted everything they told me as truth and now it wasn't."
So Michele and her grandson wait for a sign that may never come.
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