Updated: Mon, 01 Nov 2010 15:10:54 GMT | By Terri Theodore, The Canadian Press, thecanadianpress.com

Downtown Eastside project helps women



VANCOUVER - Women in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside have long been known as some of the country's most vulnerable citizens, and now the city's police force has developed a multipronged plan to protect them.

The Guardian Project will see the force set up a crime tip line, create a website and hold town hall meetings in a neighbourhood where dozens of women have disappeared over the years, including the victims of serial killer Robert Pickton.

"Crime statistics for this area have never truly reflected the danger and jeopardy that women of the Downtown Eastside face," Chief Jim Chu said Monday as he announced the project in the heart of the neighbourhood.

"Whether the cost is fear of reprisal or the fear of authority figures, women have traditionally been reluctant to report crimes against themselves or others."

The department is also putting up a $10,000 reward for information that would solve the death of 22-year-old Ashley Machiskinic, a First Nations woman who fell from a window in one of the area's seedy hotels this past September.

Police initially concluded Machiskinic's death was a suicide, but are now treating the case as a possible murder.

Many of the area's residents and her relatives believe the drug-addicted woman was killed as an example to others to pay their drug debts, and the case has further strained the relationship between residents and the police.

Marlene George, one of the organizers of an annual Valentine's Day march to remember murdered and missing women, said few in the community believe Machiskinic killed herself.

"We know that that wasn't an accident," she told a crowd of reporters gathered for the police announcement Monday.

Two of Machiskinic's cousins were also on hand.

Mona Woodward said her cousin's death has been a catalyst for change in the community and a new relationship with Vancouver police.

"I'm feeling really positive about it," she said.

But Winona Williams isn't sure her Machiskinic's death or the tip line will change much for women in the area.

"Nobody wants to be involved because if you are found saying something, you will get jumped, you will get beat up."

Just recently, Williams said, her sister's head was shaved in what she said was a random attack.

Vancouver police said last month they were investigating several reports of drug dealers shaving the heads of female drug addicts in the Downtown Eastside as punishment for not paying drug debts.

Williams said there is little trust for the police, who don't seem to come as quickly when they're called to the Downtown Eastside as they would if they were heading to another neighbourhood.

She tells people in the neighbourhood to ask for an ambulance when they're calling the police.

"Because, you know what, when you're requesting an ambulance, that means someone's hurt and police and paramedics show up."

Vancouver Staff Sgt. Joanne Boyle said the original police department statement that Machiskinic killed herself was incorrect.

Machiskinic, who was originally from the Kawacatoose First Nation in Saskatchewan, died Sept. 15.

"We're very stymied," Boyle said of the investigation. "There hasn't been any information coming forward from the community even though we've made a number of pleas."

Boyle said investigators hope the reward money will generate some information.

Last month, police held a town hall meeting in the Downtown Eastside specifically to talk about violence against women in light of Machiskinic's death, but the event deteriorated into a litany of shouted concerns about policing.

In the past few decades, dozens of women have vanished from the Downtown Eastside.

The remains or DNA of 33 women who disappeared from the neighbourhood were found on Pickton's pig farm in Port Coquitlam, B.C.

He was convicted of killing six women, and a public inquiry has been announced to examine the failed police investigation that allowed Pickton to continue killing.

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