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Missing Sarah: A Vancouver Woman Remembers Her Vanished Sister

by Maggie de Vries

Robert Pickton has been accused of crimes that, if he’s convicted, would make him the worst serial killer in Canadian history. But few Canadians could likely name even one of the women he is charged with murdering because most of the victims are sex trade workers. Maggie de Vries has set about to change that – “to know what and who we have lost” – by writing a memoir about her sister Sarah, who was missing from April 1998 to August 2002, when she was declared officially dead through DNA evidence found on an object on Pickton’s farm. No body, no remains. Apparently just enough DNA to know she was murdered. (Although at the time of this writing, Pickton has not been charged in her death.)

Maggie de Vries is white, educated, and an acclaimed children’s author and teacher in Vancouver. Her sister Sarah was a native child adopted by white parents who divorced when she was very young. Sarah became a drug addict and prostitute who worked Vancouver’s notorious downtown eastside. Though only eight years apart, Sarah and Maggie spent little time together growing up.

Sarah’s life was quite bleak, to be sure, but Missing Sarah is first and foremost a love story. Maggie’s gift to her sister – and there is no more generous gift – is to be unflinchingly honest. So we learn that Sarah was a drug user and a prostitute whose relationships with most men were quite disturbing. But she was also a good, sometimes heroic, friend and a thoughtful writer of journals and poetry. About her johns Sarah wrote: “I can’t comprehend or start to understand what actually makes the man. How does one think? How does one feel? Do they actually realize that I’m real?”

Sarah’s struggle, apparent even in her letters as a child, is to fit in, to accept that she is loved. Maggie’s struggle is to figure out why Sarah followed a path so unlike the rest of the family. In the end, though, Maggie has no answers and, strangely, the book is richer for it. Warts and all, we know exactly who we have lost. And we, too, miss Sarah.