Justin Ling, an investigative journalist working in both Canadian and U.S. media, has covered policing, sex work and crime in depth for a decade. Ling has worked extensively on the murders in Toronto’s gay village in the 2010s, wherein serial killer Bruce McArthur killed at least eight men from the neighbourhood between 2010 and 2017. In his book, Missing from the Village, and as host of the CBC podcast Uncover: The Village, Ling explored the background of the murders, the failures of the Toronto Police Service to properly investigate them and the structural issues that allowed these deaths to remain unaccounted for so many years.
Now, Ling has returned for the second season of the podcast, this time shifting the focus to other deaths and a different set of failures on the part of the city’s police. The newest season explores the deaths of two Toronto trans women, Alloura Wells and Cassandra Do, and the circumstances that resulted in shoddy, inconclusive investigations.
Ling spoke to Xtra from his home in Montreal’s Rosemont neighbourhood about the second season of Uncover The Village, the distrustful relationship between the police and marginalized communities and the need to stop criminalizing sex work.
What inspired you to work on Uncover: The Village?
The CBC came to me and suggested that there might be a podcast to be done around the missing persons cases from the village. I was initially resistant; it wasn’t something I immediately thought would be useful, to be honest. At that point, there was so much media being created, so many documentaries up in the air. Everyone involved in media was fatigued by it. But what they suggested to me was that there was something else to be done with these cases. What I found compelling was the idea that we could go back and use the McArthur case as a lens to talk about the issues at play, but also to go back and look at a bunch of cases that have not gotten the attention that the McArthur case did. So the first season was about what happened in the McArthur investigation, and talked about some of the failures in those missing persons cases, but also talked about a broader systemic problem that goes back decades. I was really happy with the way we’ve been able to bring in a lot of that history and tell some stories from the past several decades in Toronto that have, frankly, never really been told.
Do you intend to do more seasons of the podcast on different crimes that have not gotten the same sort of attention?
My mindset coming into the show was always that the first season will be a format that other people take on. All these cases in Toronto are not really unique to Toronto—there are cities around the world that have seen really similar phenomena, from San Francisco to Montreal to Chicago to Detroit to a whole bunch of other places. Part of me wanted other folks to come along and say, “I want to do The Village, but for my city as well”—which was a little optimistic, in fairness.
When we decided to do a second season, we really felt it was a continuation of the first. In the first season, we really didn’t spend a significant amount of time talking about trans people, who are still in many ways facing a lot of the pressures and problems and failures that we basically saw gay men face in the ’70s and ’80s. So I believe this season is an extension or continuation, maybe a completion, of Season 1. And then beyond that we’re having conversations about what the podcast would look like in other cities. I’m optimistic that we could produce some really interesting investigations into how queer people have been policed and failed in other cities in Canada and potentially elsewhere.
What was the transition like for you between the two seasons?
It was tough in light of the pandemic. Part of what I loved about Season 1 was our ability to go to people’s living rooms, go to the archives and deal with people face to face. We obviously couldn’t really do that this time. We had a couple of opportunities where we got to do it safely and got to hang out in person with people, but generally speaking, a lot of stuff was done over the phone. It was hard to navigate the distance that came with that.
The other big part was that in the first season, I was familiar with the people, I had people I knew that I could call up pretty easily. And they were issues that I understood personally. I was a gay man hosting a show about, generally speaking, other gay men. Coming into the second season, it was trickier. I was writing about a part of a community that is not my own. I consider myself fairly well-versed on the issues facing trans people, but I’m not an expert, this is not my reality. So it meant trying to figure out how to tell the show as much as possible through the lens of trans people, non-binary people or other folks in the trans community. And that also meant bringing in folks from the community who could look at the scripts and tell us where we were missing things, or where I misunderstood something. The final product ended up being a real group effort in a way that the first season maybe wasn’t. I think it’s very easy to skip that step and for journalists to say, “I’m an expert, I’ve done my research, I’m just going to go ahead and write this script.” Which is often a disaster, because fundamentally you’re claiming expertise in a community that you just don’t have.
I remember a couple of years ago, some conservatives got a hold on the idea of “sensitivity readings,” which were always framed as ethical obligations that people were forced into. But you’re suggesting that consulting made the work itself stronger?
Oh, absolutely. It can be tough in this industry to have people from the community work with you. There’s not an enormous number of trans people in Canadian media, and there are a bunch of unfortunate reasons for that. It is a matter of not being happy with only having cisgender people working on a podcast that is fundamentally about trans people. Maybe we didn’t hit the mark 100 percent, but I’m really happy we were able to get some folks from the trans community working on the podcast with us.
A lot of the conversations on the podcast are very emotionally driven. Was it difficult for you to navigate that high level of emotional intensity over a distance?
Doing really emotional, tough interviews over a distance can be really difficult. And it’s also sort of unfair to the people being interviewed in many respects. We certainly spoke with people in the first season who were really emotionally wrecked by the interview. Having someone sitting across from you, chatting with you, staying with you after the interview and having a nice conversation, can go a long way in terms of sort of lessening the blow of the trauma of some of those interviews. But when you do interviews over Zoom and over distance, it’s emotionally difficult. And then you log off, and many times you’re just sitting there by yourself, and that’s really tough.
The Bruce McArthur murders got a lot of media and popular attention, but the stories you’re talking about in Season 2 did not really get a lot of attention. What do you attribute this difference to?
I’m not sure I even agree with that, to be totally honest, because the McArthur cases only got a lot of attention after McArthur was arrested. The cases themselves otherwise got horrifically little attention paid to them. And I think there’s a bunch of reasons wrapped up in that. To some degree it’s because the men were refugees and racialized, they were queer, they used drugs, in some cases they were homeless. There were a ton of reasons why those cases were ignored by the city at large. And that’s doubly true for a case like Alloura Wells’. I can’t deny that there was really good journalism, but far too little of it.
Why is that? I think it’s because journalists do a really good job of explaining away some of these stories. I don’t think there’s often the space or time devoted to explaining why these cases happen and why they go unsolved. Imagine spending a fraction of the time we talked about Honey and Barry Sherman [the Toronto billionaire couple murdered in 2017] talking about these cases. I don’t think the solution is that we treat every single crime story exactly the same. But especially when there’s evidence that things are really wrong, and that a community that has been really mistreated and underserved, it’s incumbent on us as journalists to go the extra mile. And I can tell you, when you listen to the whole season, by the end of it you’ll come away realizing just how massively the Toronto Police Service screwed up here. And if we had done a better job holding the police to account in 2017 when Wells was found, I think the investigation would’ve gone better.
So the question is: Why do cases like Alloura’s get a lack of attention? It does speak to the fact that she was trans, racialized, housing insecure and used drugs. People have this expectation that people like that just die, and maybe it’s not news or surprising. It’s this exact same mindset that led to the media and the police ignoring a serial killer. If you go back to the ’70s, and ’80s, cases we talked about in the first season, it’s the same thing. Because those men were thought of as part of a deviant community, their murders were sort of ignored. And we probably missed another serial killer. So it’s frustrating to watch all of this happen again and again. It really does feel like it’s history repeating itself.
What’s it like doing this kind of work in an era where there’s a lot of discourse around defunding the police, and then a bunch of pushback about how necessary the police are?
There are activists out there, especially trans activists and sex work activists, whose position is to defund the police and ultimately look to the abolition of policing altogether. I can’t be dismissive of that opinion at all, especially from communities that have faced too much policing. Ultimately, we need to figure out a calibration where we stop over-policing communities and we start protecting them better. In my mind, that means we stop policing for sex work, we stop making arrests for simple drug possession and look to diversion programs for small-scale dealers. This means no more morality policing, or arresting men who go cruising, and no longer harassing trans people for walking while trans. These are all things that fundamentally pull back the role of police in everyday life in a significant way. These are all things that will mean that people who are already in marginalized communities aren’t getting tickets or arrested or questioned constantly.
And this also goes back to homelessness. As we’ve seen recently [in Trinity Bellwoods], it’s totally inappropriate that the Toronto Police are marching through parks to clear out homeless encampments. We need to think seriously about how to get the police out of circumstances where they’re proactively policing people that are already underprotected. On the flip side, when somebody is killed in these communities, their communities need to be met with a seasoned homicide detective who won’t question their identity or judge them based on how they lived, but that will actually work with their communities to solve the case. How could I ever trust the Toronto Police Service when I can’t even expect that they will solve my murder if I get killed? I think that is a really fundamental problem in this relationship. But a solution is going to require a top-to-bottom reimagining of what policing is, what they do, how they do it and how they do it effectively.
Within the podcast you take a nuanced approach towards sex work. What was behind your approach there?
I’ve been covering sex work in this country for almost as long as I’ve been a journalist. I can tell you that a lot of the moral panic around sex work is fundamentally unfair, is fundamentally unhelpful and is fundamentally just a roundabout way to continue policing sex workers. It is not good that people under 18 feel the need to go do sex work to fund their life, their transition or their apartment. Nobody should be pushed into work under the age of 18 anyway, they should be going to school. It’s really frustrating to watch people wag their finger at women who fall into this work, or choose to get into this work, when they’re not given other options. There are sex workers out there who don’t want other options, who would just prefer a more stable job in a legal market, but they’re not given this opportunity. I’ve spoken to so many sex workers over the years who are just begging to be allowed to pay taxes and operate a registered business. It is a choice we’ve made as a country to not let that happen. They’ve been trying to abolish prostitution since the dawn of time and it hasn’t worked. It’s never going to work. So really, what we’re doing is putting sex workers in danger and killing them, in the hopes we discourage others. Mentally a disgusting notion for our government to have, and it’s based entirely on moralization, not on any coherent public policy goal.
How does that affect policing?
Oftentimes, when the police make an argument around human trafficking, they’re not talking about actual human trafficking—they’re talking about sex work. You hear a lot of police officers and politicians say they don’t see a distinction between sex work and human trafficking. Really what they’re doing is saying that sex workers have zero agency, that they are just pieces of meat that get moved around, and that we have to end the whole industry altogether. From the position of having dealt with this for more than a decade, I’ve seen how the old laws were applied, how the new laws are applied, and have grappled with the shift toward trying to stamp out sex work by calling it “human trafficking.” I think this season [of the podcast] is very clear that sex work criminalization is monsterous, and it needs to stop. I think that’s becoming increasingly apparent. Vancouver made the decision about five years ago to stop policing sex work, and not a single sex worker has died since inside of that city. This is a city where Robert Pickton used to be so comfortable he’d just drive up and take sex workers off the street. They would never be seen or heard from again, and we still don’t know how many women were killed. This is a city that fundamentally did not care about sex workers, and that is now making the conscious decision to stop over-policing them. And they’re much safer because of it.
Has the moral panic around the scare of human trafficking always been here, or has it become very exaggerated at this point?
We have a great conversation about this on the podcast with Morgan Page, who’s a trans historian and a former sex worker, who I think explains it in very simple terms that are easy to understand. You can’t take away from the fact that there are human trafficking cases, and there are forced pimping cases. And these cases deserve investigations and proper handling. But it is fundamentally frustrating to hear police say things like human trafficking investigations are “there to protect the victims.” In many cases, human trafficking investigations end in deportations of the women involved. So are you protecting them? Or are you policing that? I don’t think the police even know anymore. When you start breaking down these human trafficking cases, you realize that more often than not, it’s women who have found themselves in the sex trade who may want an exit, but where they more closely resemble just classic cases of sex work. Frankly, there are classic cases of sex work where women don’t have opportunities and don’t have the freedom or the confidence to call the police or social services because they’re still being criminalized. Or there are instances where pimps are bringing them into increasingly dangerous areas in hopes of evading police protection. These are offshoots of criminalization. We have created this culture, and we’ve created this underground industry. The best way to solve human trafficking is to legalize sex work and actually work with sex workers. Stop deportations for sex workers with precarious immigration status, give women the agency to run their own business, to collect taxes, to file pensions. There’s a whole bunch of things that need to change here. The idea of human trafficking just muddies it up. But again, it’s just an effort to change the language to justify continuing criminalization.
Do you think a reduction or end to criminalization would have been a factor in keeping women like Alloura Wells and Cassandra Do more safe?
It’s hard to imagine how it wouldn’t. In Cassandra’s case, she was operating out of her apartment, she did not have a bodyguard, she did not have a driver. She actually wanted one. In the weeks before her death, she was actually worried about someone else in the industry and had been asking how to get protection. But of course, the law said that if she hired a bodyguard or a doorman or hired someone to run an apartment for her or to work with other girls in an apartment, that would be a charge for prostitution or for operating a common bawdy house. The law literally took away her power to protect herself.
We have spoken to sex workers who were there when she died, who said that cops came in to ask for their help. But these are the same cops who had been stopping and ticketing them or had arrested them just months earlier. You hear from sex workers in the show who faced extortion from some cops, cops who demanded money or sex from them. These are women who already get the short end of the stick when it comes to police. When the police come around asking for help or for information, why would they work with them? Why would they provide them anything? Police have a person they’re looking at who likely knows who did this, and that guy’s not talking. This guy has been entrenched in the either black or gray market for sex work for many years. It’s no wonder he’s not talking.
Again, this is a direct analogy to what we did in the first season. The first season, we were talking to these homicide cops, who, looking back with the benefit of a couple decades of hindsight, agree that the Toronto bathhouse raids [of 1981] screwed up their homicide investigations. Morality policing fundamentally made the community distrustful, unwilling to help and frankly fearful of the cops when they arrived. And that’s exactly what’s happening today.
Season 2 of Uncover: The Village is streaming now on cbc.ca or wherever you get your podcasts.