Pickton inquiry: "Erin Brockovich of Downtown Eastside" refuses to stay silent on missing women
“I thought, 'Okay, he said what I want to hear, I'm going to talk to him.' So the next morning I asked for an appointment. Before they brought the inquiry to order, (inquiry registrar Leonard Giles) came up and said, 'The Commissioner will see you at 4 p.m.' -- that's verbatim.”
But according to Fournier, just two hours before the meeting, Commission staff pulled Fournier out of the public gallery and told her she would not be meeting with Oppal, instead asking her to sign a document agreeing to participate in a policy discussion forum instead of testifying, she claimed. Fournier said she refused that, as well as attempts to have her record an affidavit – she wants to be cross-examined on the stand, and ensure her words are both public and in appropriate context. Commission counsel would not comment on the alleged meeting.
Missing women "like daughters to me"
Fournier paused emotionally as she described her decades of work as a nurse in a neighbourhood described as Canada's poorest off-reserve postal code. She considered many of the murdered women as her own daughters, she said – and said that her own experience being abducted by her father at age two, and her mother's four-year search for her, inspired her to never give up searching.
“Imagine going to work every day, seeing the faces on the (missing woman) bulletin, and longing for them, wondering where they are,” she said of her and other Downtown Eastside workers. “They didn't pay attention to any of us who reported these women missing.
“They worked so hard and hurt so much. To come to work and be told. . .” - tears filling her eyes, Fournier's voice strained to a halt. We sit in silence for a moment.
“After Marnie Frey disappeared, that hit me very hard,” she continued. “They were like my girls – like daughters to me. Quite a few of them I knew from various stages of life, since they were juveniles.
“I thought I could do something, could make things better for the missing women, and women who worked the stroll.”
Identifying Sereena after Pickton murders
Fournier believes she is the last person to have seen Sereena Abotsway – a woman who called her "Mom" – alive in 2001. The two even discussed her asthma inhalers, which were later found on Pickton's farm the night when police first raided – on a coincidental gun warrant filed by a rookie cop – in 2002.
“It was a hot night,” she recalled, when Abotsway approached the DEYAS van near Cambie and Hastings Street. “'Hi Mom, can we talk?' she said.
“Sereena got on board, we had a hug. She looked fantastic, and I said, 'You look great.' She announced she was going to a party; she was waiting for her ride to pick her up at the Cenotaph. Obviously she was going somewhere – it wasn't her normal clothing. When she got in the van, she was yacking and joking. She was so excited to be singled out and made to feel special. She said, 'See you tomorrow night.' But I didn't see her the next night. Nobody saw her anywhere.”
Months went by, and Fournier and WISH drop-in centre coordinator Elaine Allen searched frantically for the young woman – going to her residence in (the Vancouver Native Housing Society), contacting her foster family in Pitt Meadows, speaking to police. In spring 2002, Fournier was called to the Vancouver Police Department and asked to identify missing women and assist the investigation, which now spanned several police departments after years of delays.
Looking at pictures the officers put in front of her, she pointed to Abotsway's instantly.
“'This is Sereena Abotsway. I was the last one to see her. Nobody listened to us.'”
For many families of the missing and murdered women, Fournier – like Elaine Allen, who testified last fall about her work at a sex worker drop-in centre – is a key witness with too much experience to ignore. But Fournier said her thoughts are also about the future.
“Am I going to be here in 25 years to say I don't want Pickton released (on parole)?” she asked. “No, I'll be six feet under. Who'll be here?
“The man was only charged with second-degree murder. Putting someone through a meat grinder? Give me a break! Mr. Oppal: Think about your reputation. You're making a decision by omission. Your decision will not include evidence that's pertinent.”
For now, Fournier -- who wrote a 2010 book on her DTES work, Mugged, Drugged and Shrugged -- is waiting to hear whether Oppal hears her plea in his final witness announcement on Monday.
“I'm still working at being heard,” she said, gripping her floral-pattern cane with determination as she sorts through stacks of inquiry documents, only blocks from the hearings.
“I've been brushed off for long enough.”
Editor's note: on April 25, Fournier was selected to testify at the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry, in part as a result of this story.