I met Sereena Abotsway not long before her face appeared on the poster of missing women on the Downtown Eastside, long before her face appeared on the pages of newspapers around the world as a victim of alleged serial killer Willie Pickton. I have not made much of my contact with Sereena; I don’t want to come across like a person in a Joni Mitchell song who has brief contact with a famous person and goes on to portray them as “a very good friend of mine”.
Sereena Abotsway was not a very good friend of mine. I met Sereena through Carol Romanow, in the 2nd floor cafeteria of the Carnegie Centre at Main & Hastings. Carol, who was then in her mid fifties, knew lots of people in the neighbourhood, including street-involved people. She ran a Hepatitis C group at Carnegie and had been on the Board of the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre. She was always helping people; she would load her van with clothes that somebody was throwing out and give them to people who could use them. She was kind, too often brusque, but consistently trustworthy. I don’t know where exactly she met Sereena.
I would sometimes sit with Carol on the 2nd floor while having a coffee or a meal. One day Carol walked in with Sereena; she brought her to my table and introduced me. Carol left for a few minutes then to go to the counter where you order food or coffee, and I was left to make small talk with Sereena. When Carol returned, the three of us sat and chatted for about half an hour.
I’ve been told that I have a good memory for social detail, yet when I try to recall what the three of us talked about, I draw a blank. What I do recall is what was going through my mind as we sat talking, maybe because I went over it in my mind again shortly afterwards when I saw Sereena’s face on the Missing Women poster, and a couple of times over the years when mentioning it to friends.
What I was thinking while chatting with Sereena – not in hindsight – was that there must have been a stretch in her childhood where she had been treated with some love and respect. She just didn’t have the heavy layer of psychological armouring that so many street people have, she didn’t have a coarse way of talking. She lacked the hostile edge. When I made small talk with Sereena as we waited for Carol to come back with coffee, I recall initially being taken aback by her undefended demeanor: she smiled, she was respectful, unpretentious, and put out the effort to carry her end of the conversation. She was nice. The entire time, I kept thinking that there must have been a period when somebody raising her had treated her ok and formed this personality that was now treating me ok. You could see it; it was like a light that was still on in Sereena.
Another thing that was running through my mind as we chatted – not in hindsight -- was that even though Sereena was nice, I wouldn’t be naïve enough to trust her because you can’t trust anybody into drugs or street life. Not that Sereena was on drugs that day; I’m virtually certain she wasn’t. It’s just that I have never forgotten what a street-smart Cree man told me over a decade ago: “The thing to remember about street people is that they’re always hustling.” It’s not that Sereena came across as hustling while she chatted with me. She didn’t. Not at all.
It is my overall impression of Sereena taken from that chat that has stayed with me over the years, as concrete details of her have faded. Like the fact that she was missing her front teeth. It took a photo of Sereena on the front page of the Vancouver Sun at the start of the Pickton trial to jog my memory of that fact, even though her missing teeth were not obvious in the photo. Such a detail is always easy to forget on the Downtown Eastside, where lack of dental upkeep is more common and standards of female beauty are more forgiving than in other neighbourhoods.
Just two or three weeks after that first meeting with Sereena, I saw her again at Carnegie. It was a sweltering hot afternoon, a Sunday I believe as I recall Carnegie having that deserted feeling it often has on a summer Sunday afternoon. I was sitting at a table on the 2nd floor when Sereena walked in. She said hi to me and seemed to be in an upbeat mood. She was wearing knee length, stretchy, black leggings and a matching black tank top. The top was very short; her entire midriff was showing. She was a bit puffy around the midriff but the thing I noticed at the time – not in hindsight – was how unselfconsciously she moved in her far from perfect body, a trait I've noticed amongst Downtown Eastside women whose bodies get plenty of use in the sex trade.
After saying hi to me, Sereena walked toward the counter where coffee and food are sold. I had the impression that she was going to come back and sit down. I wasn’t paying much attention but she seemed to be talking to someone near the coffee counter. Suddenly she took off. It was then that I noticed a light summer top, red with black dots if I remember correctly, slung over the back of a chair at my table. I remember commenting to somebody that I thought Sereena had left it. But she was gone.
Sereena's happy-go-lucky air that day, coupled with the fact that she appeared to have left her top behind, has left me wondering in hindsight if she was a bit high – addicts act scattered and shed things; there are always clothes dropped on the sidewalks on the DTES – but then again she may have been straight. She was certainly lucid; she remembered me.
About six weeks after this last encounter with Sereena, I was in the lobby of the Carnegie Centre, standing by the bulletin board gazing at the rows of faces on the missing women’s poster. I saw Sereena’s face. I knew it was her. It looked exactly like her. Sometimes I look at women’s faces on that poster and think, “She looks like somebody I’ve seen around, but I can't be sure.” In Sereena’s case, I was sure.
I remember being amazed at what a small gap of time there seemed to be between my meeting Sereena and her face turning up on the poster of missing women. I wondered why I hadn’t heard Carol mention it. I hadn’t heard anybody mention it. In fact, I don’t recall ever hearing the missing women discussed by regulars at Carnegie over coffee or dinner.
Long after meeting Sereena and seeing her on the missing woman’s poster, a year or two later, maybe more, I stumbled across something about her in the Vancouver Sun. The article – I don’t have a copy so I’m relying on memory -- did not start out being about Sereena. It was about a controversy involving two foster parents, a married couple. Government social workers were planning to remove two girls, sisters I believe, around 12 years old, from their home. But the girls didn’t want to be removed as they had been happy with this couple for some time. And the couple wanted to continue raising them. But social workers claimed that the couple, who may have been in their early 70s, were too old now to be foster parenting young girls.
Toward the end of the interview, the reporter asked this couple about the years they had spent as foster parents to Sereena Abotsway. A lot came out. By the time these foster parents had gotten Sereena, she had been chronically abused, sexually and otherwise, by a guy raising her whom I believe they said was her father or uncle. She had been taken from him and placed with these foster parents at the age of four. Too late, I remember thinking; almost irreparable damage would have been done by that time.
These foster parents raised Sereena until the age of 17, at which point they could no longer keep her as she had gotten out of control and was influencing younger children in the home. But they took an interest in what became of her: they impressed upon social workers that Sereena should not be moved into a group home where she would be influenced by other troubled teenagers. They were ignored. That group home would prove to be a gateway for Sereena into drugs and the sex trade.
But from the age of 4 to 17, these foster parents had given Sereena a stable upbringing. As a child, they had taken her to church where she had liked to sing. Even after she had moved out, they had remained bonded with her, speaking almost daily to her on the telephone and meeting her regularly for dinner. They had a reputation for being two of the best foster parents in the province.
That’s it, I thought. That’s the light I saw.