Missing Women Inquiry resumes next week, but will it make a difference?

Published in the Vancouver Observer news site  |  January 6, 2012  |  Circulation: 100,000 average monthly readers.

Some new years resolutions are, sadly, not made by those who matter most.

And so, on January 11, we head into Round Two of the Missing Women’s Inquiry. At its helm: retired BC Liberal politician and the province’s formerAttorney General Wally Oppal.

I am sad to report that, after following and finally covering the proceedings this last few months for the Vancouver Observer, I have next to no faith the inquiry will deliver change, truth or justice.

I have in past articles described Oppal’s role in the inquiry as “beleaguered” — but that actually seems extremely unfair. Unfair, in particular, to the very people who have “beleaguered” him: families of the Robert Pickton’s victims, almost every community agency in the Downtown Eastside, and to top that off, the reputable Amnesty International and the Assembly of First Nations. All of those agencies, except the Vancouver Area Drug Users Network (VANDU) announced they would boycott the hearings because they had no faith in a fair process or a just outcome.

When the Inquiry first launched in October — met by community protests — I called up Amnesty International’s Canadian head, Alex Neve, to ask why the world’s largest human rights organization was pulling out of the hearings.

“The government is sending a very clear sign that [Indigenous women’s] voices don’t matter and simply aren’t wanted,” Neve told me. “It’s cruelly ironic that an inquiry supposed to grapple with access to justice for Aboriginal women does so in a way that undermines that completely.”

There seems little point in rehashing the problems of Oppal’s tenure. From the beginning, participating groups have felt discouraged, nay, shut out of this critical inquiry into why police botched so badly the investigation into serial killerRobert Pickton. Police could have caught him in the late 1990s – they had informants begging to bring him in, they had ample evidence, not to mention that sex workers were, at the time, warning each other of a Coquitlam pig farmer preying on women.

In the end, Pickton is in jail – but after admitting to 49 murders, he was put away for a mere six, and there was no justice for dozens of other families. Questions also remain for many about how Pickton could have achieved his crimes in broad daylight with no assistance from anyone else, or the extensive organized crime links to his pig farm.

But, despite being criticized for a process perceived as unfair from the beginning, the BC government steadfastly refused to budge on its failure to fund lawyers of key organizations working with the groups targeted by Pickton.

Throughout the inquiry, Oppal has routinely interjected his opinions into the proceedings, verging on bickering with lawyers, chastising certain lines of questioning. I was only able to attend the final three days as a reporter. I spoke to several outraged families of women Pickton killed. I spoke to several frustrated VANDU representatives. I spoke to other reporters. I even heard concerns from officials inside the courthouse about the proceedings.

One thing that I found truly fascinating was that the Missing Women Inquiry took place at exactly the same time as the Cohen inquiry into salmon populations.

That inquiry got daily headlines, and according to one courthouse insider, was in general well-attended by both the public and media.

Although the media fixated on several shocking aspects of the Pickton inquiry – such as sexist slurs and grossly unprofessional conduct of police – for the most part the public gallery only hosted a handful of supporters of people testifying, and in the media room there were but a few of us from day-to-day. Most left at lunch-time and didn’t return (on two days I was asked to push “record” on several outlets tape machines). Not the reporters’ fault – there are fewer and fewer of us able to stick to a beat in this concentrated corporate media environment.

But as this insider told me in frustration – we are talking about 49 murdered human beings here in Pickton’s case alone, and many others yet unsolved. Do Vancouverites care more about fish? he asked rhetorically. I wonder.

I have to allow myself more optimism in the people of Vancouver. And since we are hearing little acknowledgement from Oppal of the gaping problems in this inquiry, it is up to all of us to make justice for the missing women our New Year’s resolution.

And it is ours at the Vancouver Observer to bring you the stories from the Inquiry that ask deeper questions and go beyond the rhetoric.

As a reporter, I want to hear from those voices excluded from the hearing. Without funding, key community and human rights groups could not participate. Compared to dozens of lawyers on the side of various police forces, officers, government and the inquiry itself, there are only a couple advocates for families of the women and community interests.

More critical voices should have been testifying and cross-examining the police forces, who are keen to accept only so much blame for the disastrous and embarrassing Pickton investigation. But their goal, some believe, is to admit errors were made while avoiding larger, systemic questions about policing, racism, sexism and why some victims seem to matter more than others.

Pickton may be in jail, but sex workers in the Downtown Eastside claim that police still too-often ignore their requests for help and have failed to build a trusting relationship — a relationship which might prevent future Picktons from killing.

And so, last month, several community groups in the Downtown Eastside took their issues to the United Nations. They bypassed our government completely, and demanded that the UN’s committee on discrimination of women investigate the estimated nearly 600 missing and murdered Native women in Canada.

Guess what? The UN accepted the submission, and said it would explore the matter of an investigation further. However, it needs Canada’s consent — and, no surprise, the Conservatives were unenthusiastic about UN investigators arriving in Canada to probe our country’s dirty laundry. That laundry will also be aired at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission into residential schools — and it’s high time the rest of us paid attention to the injustices Indigenous peoples continue to face in our country.

I have been speaking of a New Year of “audacious” acts – that’s what it’s going to take to seek justice for these women.

Let’s do all we can – whether or not Oppal’s inquiry makes improvements – to ensure that we don’t lose sight of the goal of the Missing Women Inquiry. And we need to be asking why our governments are so unconcerned that 600 missing and murdered Native women across this country can only hope for justice in Geneva, Switzerland.

Let’s be outraged, let’s demand the truth, let’s not let the powers that be off the hook — and I hope we can all commit to the simple act of listening and responding, in 2012 and beyond. It’s the least we can do.

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