Difficult Inheritances: Placing Memorials of Vancouver's Disappeared Women in Context

Engaging readers in a thoughtful analysis of the public representations and activist strategies that seek to remember and retell the stories of Vancouver’s disappeared women, this research reflects on the enduring historical contexts of injustice and violence that continue to impact Canadian society in the present.


Dean, A. (2015). Remembering Vancouver's Disappeared Women: Settler Colonialism and the Difficulty of Inheritance. Toronto: The University of Toronto Press.

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What is this research about?

Between the late 1970s and the early 2000s, a shocking number of women from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, many of them Indigenous, went missing or were found murdered. Their stories, initially neglected in the media and by police and justice investigations, have received increased attention as a result of the expressed grief and outrage of friends and family. In the first-ever study of how the stories of disappearance or murder of women from the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood in Vancouver have been represented within a wider public, Amber Dean argues that all Canadians, even and perhaps especially those who live at a distance from the tragedy, owe a responsibility to remember as part of our cultural inheritance. But, in addition to memorialization, Dean calls on all of us – her readers – to form a collective that takes on the responsibility of challenging the social conditions that make possible violence against women, particularly ongoing colonial violence against Indigenous women.

What did the researchers do?

Remembering Vancouver’s Disappeared Women brings together critical theory with examinations of a diverse array of cultural productions, including police posters, documentary film and photography of the Downtown Eastside, media representations and artists’ renderings of some of the missing women, memorials (both permanent and performance-based), selected media coverage of the Pickton trial, social justice activism, and self-representations by some of the women who have been disappeared (including poetry, journal entries and participation in activist work). Dean’s interdisciplinary approach expands current understandings of Canada and Canadian society by examining the historical regulation of Indigenous women’s lives in Canada and by making connections between historical and present-day violence against women in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
Through connecting the past with the present, Remembering Vancouver’s Disappeared Women challenges readers to recognize their own participation in a settler society whose cultural, legal, and social structures sanction acts of violence as a form of colonial power. Dean poses difficult questions regarding the collective responsibility of her readers, and Canada as a nation, in order to increase the possibility that a wider public might come to feel implicated in the acts of violence and social conditions that allowed the unacknowledged disappearance of so many women, conditions that extend beyond the details of any single personal story to indict an enduring and brutal system of oppression.

What did the researchers find?

Dean’s analysis of diverse cultural representations reveals that members of a wider Canadian public are rarely called upon to do more than witness or feel compassion or grief in response to the women’s murders, thus leaving the social system unscrutinised and unchanged. In Chapter 5, for example, Dean offers an account of how memorials established in honour of the missing and murdered women typically evoke modes of remembrance that depict the women as potentially “anywoman,” and therefore like “all women.” In contrast, some artistic renditions discussed by Dean invite deeper reflection than that elicited by empathy alone, and “tie feeling to responsibility.” Dean similarly encourages readers to shift away from responses that the disappeared women are either too close (“just like me”) or too distant (“nothing like me”) to our own personal lives. Instead, she calls upon readers to consider how each one of us is located in social relations differently and is therefore implicated differently in unjust social conditions. This self-awareness is a precursor to engaging in what Dean calls “practices of inheritance,” which can inform and spur individual action and the formation of new political collectives with the potential to generate the change necessary to address widespread discrepancies in cultural perceptions and social conditions.

How can you use this research?

Remembering Vancouver’s Disappeared Women asks readers to recognize the violent legacy of Canada’s settler colonial history as it continues to play out in all of our lives, but especially those of contemporary Indigenous women and communities. This research will interest students and researchers working in several fields, including but not limited to Indigenous studies, gender studies, cultural studies, visual and multimedia arts, and social work. Its accessible discussion of scholarly and artistic practice will also engage general readers. Dean urges everyone to develop more ethical practices by “inheriting what lives on” from the violent deaths and loss of the many Vancouver women. This inheritance involves raising public awareness about how and why disappeared women from the Downtown Eastside were represented as an “ungrievable loss” in the first place. It also means aligning with others to take a critical stance against an ongoing crisis of injustice manifest in the impoverishment, oppression, and marginalization of some groups of people within Canada (but not all) as an urgently needed step toward preventing future violence.

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