Monday, July 21, 2014

Douglas College student recognized for history essay on unsolved Vancouver murder

An unsolved murder in a wealthy neighbourhood. A suspected cover-up by powerful figures. An atmosphere of racial and class tension.

That may sound like the makings of a Hollywood thriller, but it actually describes a notorious chapter of Vancouver historyone that captured the interest of student Sarah Hardy.

While an Associate of Arts student at Douglas College, Sarah researched the 1924 Janet Smith case as part of an assignment for her B.C. history class.

“I was originally interested in this topic because a while ago I heard about this case on a show about haunted places in Vancouver,” Sarah says.

“It sounded like a really interesting case, so I chose it to write about, and the more I looked into it, the more shocking facts emerged. There were so many theories on what happened.”

Sarah sifted through old newspaper articles, journals of the B.C. legislative assembly and other documents to piece together an account of the case.

The result of her efforts was an essay titled “Vancouver's Scottish Nightingale: How a Murder Investigation was Altered and Obstructed by Class and Race Issues.”

The essay recently won her the $750 W. Kaye Lamb Essay Scholarship from the British Columbia Historical Federation, an award that recognizes the work of first- or second-year postsecondary students.

At the centre of the case is Smith, a young nanny who worked in the home of a prominent Vancouver family. Smith was found dead on July 26, 1924.

While investigators failed to ever solve the case, and initially labelled it a suicide, suspicion fell on a Chinese houseboy, Wong Foon Sing, who was close to Smith.

It was a time of widespread anti-Asian sentiment and, at one point following the death, Wong was kidnapped by a group of white-robed men who attempted to force a confession.

Wong, who proclaimed his innocence, was eventually freed and later cleared by the courts.

Sarah says the sensational case, which grabbed people’s attention across the country, shows how popular opinion can influence criminal investigations.

“The large Scottish population was the reason Janet’s death was investigated further, and the intense discrimination against Asian people in Vancouver was the reason Wong Foon Sing was accused,” she says.

Sarah, now a student at UBC, says it’s hard to not be fascinated by the Janet Smith case.

“It is more than just an unsolved murder; there are scandals, police cover-ups, political corruption, racism, kidnapping, drug smuggling. Every new facet of the case was pretty surprising.”