Oct 01, 2013

"Never give up"

Street nurse Bonnie Fournier fought for justice for society’s most vulnerable

Ward Perrin/Vancouver Sun

For five years, registered psychiatric nurse Bonnie Fournier was senior nurse on the Downtown Eastside Health Outreach Van, which patrolled the notorious Vancouver neighbourhood from early afternoon to 2 a.m., seven days a week. When female sex workers began disappearing in the 1990s, Fournier was one of the loudest voices clamouring for the police to search for them. Finally, in 2002, Robert Pickton was arrested and charged with the murders of some of the women.

Fournier retired in 2003 when a medical crisis ended her career, but she continued her fight for justice for those who had gone missing. In fall 2011, the B.C. government began a public inquiry, in part into the way the province’s police forces had handled the numerous reported cases of women missing from the Downtown Eastside. Fournier’s name was among those submitted to be a witness, but no call came. After months of lobbying with inquiry officials, she was finally granted an opportunity to speak on May 11, 2012, one of the last days of the inquiry.

Fournier died on June 2, 2013.

In an interview with Megaphone Magazine, Fournier’s close friend annie ross, a professor in the department of First Nations Studies at Simon Fraser University, remembered Fournier as “the stuff of heroes and saints. She witnessed horrible, unspeakable things, and simply kept insisting, ‘Justice!’... No one could intimidate her or frighten her. She stared down the best of them — politicians, scofflaws, criminals — and came back strong to continue her work.”

Canadian Nurse spoke with Fournier in June 2012 about what it was like working under such stressful conditions and what she learned about helping the women when it seemed as though no one with the power to make a difference cared. The following are excerpts from that interview, which we present in tribute to her.

When did you first notice women were missing from the Downtown Eastside?

Within that first year, I started to notice that I was no longer seeing some of the girls I would normally see every single night. I wondered where they were.

What did you do to try to find them?

I made many calls to police. I made many reports and went down to the station, went to the chief of police, community liaisons, missing person centres. In 2001, I had many calls and meetings with a mother who couldn’t find her daughter, and she told me that the police weren’t listening, that they wouldn’t even let her report her daughter missing. I went to the police station and got in line in my nurse jacket with my nurse ID. When I got to the counter, I was told I couldn’t report her missing because I wasn’t a family member. Then they asked for her address — well, of course, she didn’t have an address. So I got together with social workers and people from the BC Centre for Disease Control, the downtown clinics and the Vancouver Aboriginal Friendship Centre to coordinate action to look for these women. But it stopped dead at the door of police and city hall.

The police just didn’t take an interest. They said the girls were probably doing a circuit of Alberta and Saskatchewan and they’d be back. But as a nurse, I did the sex-worker stroll, and I got access to the girls that police officers wouldn’t get. A girl who had been beaten up would be too afraid of being killed if she told the police who did it, but she would talk to me. The girls knew I wasn’t going to talk to anyone without their permission. They didn’t trust the police. They said the police barely ever got out of their cars when they came by, let alone established a rapport with them.

When did you start to hear things about Robert Pickton?

I actually lived in Port Coquitlam from the mid-1970s to mid-1980s, and I remember seeing him. I lived two miles from his farm. Then in 1997 the police called me when they arrested him for attacking a woman and asked if they needed to do anything before booking him because he was so dirty they feared for their own health just handling him. I told them, no, treat him like anyone else and wash up after. [Pickton was charged with attempted murder, assault with a weapon, forcible confinement and aggravated assault, but the charges were stayed in 1998 and the records destroyed in 2001.] I started seeing him again in 1998, and that’s not a person you forget because he looked scary, he stood out. When I worked at the provincial court [as nursing supervisor in the holding cells from 1978 to 1998], I would see him on Hastings Street as I drove to and from work. In 2000, some of my girls told me about him, and he showed up when I was doing flu shots that year at a hotel in the Downtown Eastside. DEYAS [the Downtown Eastside Youth Activities Society, which ran the health outreach van] started a “bad date sheet” where we would list any johns who hurt women. We used the sheet to tell police about these men and to warn girls to stay away from them. Pickton was on the list, and we warned the girls, but some had gone out to his pig farm and nothing bad had happened, so they thought it was safe, and then went with him again and didn’t come back. One girl told me she had to jump a fence and run down the highway to get away from him.

How did you deal with the stress?

You have to be tough, no doubt about that. But it was very difficult, even for me. I had to retire in 2003 when I had a sudden brain aneurysm rupture, and shortly after that my heart went. I had a system overload. My book [Mugged, Drugged and Shrugged: The Wrong Side of the Eastside, published in 2010]has been part of my recovery from my health problems and my anxiety.

As a nurse, I had to distance myself when I found out a girl I had spoken to the week before was dead, or when one had gone missing and we were looking for her, or when we had to identify bodies in the morgue. But this was my calling in life. I always thought to myself, I am so glad to be where I am and to be able to help others who are in a bad place, because no one else is doing it. I would drive home from work after something terrible had happened, and I would park the car and look out at the water to have some quiet time and say, OK, that’s over. You’re going home. Now take off your work shoes and put on your mom clothes.

You were asked to speak at the inquiry about how the police dealt with the missing women. What happened?

In August 2011, I received an e-mail from a lawyer for the commission requesting my CV to judge my relevance to the inquiry. So I sent it right away and when I didn’t hear anything by September — the inquiry was due to begin in October — I sent an e-mail asking when I was going to be called. They finally said they couldn’t give me standing as a witness, but I could submit an affidavit. I said that wasn’t good enough because I wanted to qualify my remarks to make sure they were not misinterpreted, but I was put off and put off. I had been down there almost every day and sat there all day and listened to everyone else. I wasn’t able to speak until one of the very last days of the inquiry and then only very briefly. I wanted to share my struggles with trying to get help for these girls. They were the same age as my daughter — I knew what their mothers were feeling.

Some people said the girls chose to be on the street, but I knew they were there from circumstance. Maybe they were abused, maybe they were abducted, maybe they were given their first injection of heroin by their dad — that did happen. Maybe under different circumstances that could have been me on the street. We need to know why people get into drugs, not just detox them and send them back out onto the street. Of course, we need more resources — all levels of government fall short in providing enough resources or education — but there are people who will help when your patients are ready for it. You need to be prepared to listen and give them access to help. That’s all you can do. It made me tired, but I could never give up because to get a person off the streets you have to persevere. You have to get to know them and show them a window of opportunity, and you have to try to get them out of there. I do feel a lot of sadness that I wasn’t able to help these girls. I’ve continued to be a part of this by participating in the inquiry and speaking out because the magnitude is just horrendous. If we don’t learn about this, it will continue.

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