Missing women inquiry lawyer resigns, saying police given priority over Aboriginal voices

Published in the Vancouver Observer | March 6, 2012 | Circulation 150,000 unique monthly visitors

Robyn Gervais, lawyer representing Aboriginal interests, resigned from the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry. Photo by David P. Ball

Families of missing and murdered women wept at the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry this morning as lawyer Robyn Gervais officially handed in her resignation – the latest in a string of boycotts and criticisms of the hearings.
 
Gervais – who represented Aboriginal interests at the inquiry since it began in October – threw in the towel, the latest in a series of setbacks for the inquiry into why serial killer Robert Pickton was not arrested sooner. Her departure marks another blow for a commission which had already seen boycotts or opposition from human rights and Aboriginal groups. 

“At this point we have heard 39 days of police evidence and minimal evidence from the Aboriginal community,” Gervais told the commission, pausing often and at one point pausing to choke back tears herself. “As we continued to hear from the Vancouver Police Department and RCMP witnesses, some of whom accepted no responsibility for the inadequate investigation of the missing Aboriginal women, it became clear that you were hearing a one-sided story through a police filter.
 
“I regret that I could not find a way to bring the voices of the missing and murdered Aboriginal women into this room… I didn’t think I should have to fight to have their voices heard.”

Commissioner Oppal ‘disappointed’ in Pickton inquiry resignation

Reached by phone last night, following an initial letter warning of her departure, Gervais told the Vancouver Observer that she wanted to address her concerns to Commissioner Wally Oppal before speaking to the media – “out of respect for the commission.”
 
But Oppal responded that he was “disappointed” to see Gervais leave, and accused her of not bringing her criticisms through the appropriate channels, or approaching him directly.
 
“I must say, I’m disappointed in your decision… I wanted you to stay,” Oppal said. “You lend a very credible voice to this inquiry.
 
“I want the Aboriginal community to come here and I’ll say it one more time: it doesn’t do anyone any good, particularly aboriginal interests, to walk away from an inquiry.”
 
After her tearful resignation, Gervais received hugs from supporters, and words of gratitude from First Nations leaders and fellow lawyers. Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, head of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, attended the hearing and told the Vancouver Observer he stands fully behind the lawyer’s resignation. Gervais is herself Metis – and initially represented the Carrier Sekani Tribal Council at the inquiry, until Premier Christy Clark denied it and other groups funding last autumn.

“We support her principled decision to withdraw,” Chief Phillip told the Vancouver Observer. “She reached the same conclusion that we reached at the outset when we were denied funding resources to fully participate in the process.
 
“The Aboriginal voice has been pretty much excluded from this entire process. It’s become a soapbox for police agencies.”
 
This afternoon, Gervais returned to the inquiry with Grand Chief Phillip and other Aboriginal leaders, who said they were now thoroughly disillusioned with the inquiry – some even hinting they wanted to hold an inquiry of their own since the official one had lost legitimacy.
 
“The Commission lost any sense of credibility a very long time ago, and now it’s become a public spectacle – it’s a circus,” Grand Chief Phillip said. “This is not lost on the general public.
 
“They witness the commission unravel day by day. I think Mr. Oppal is deliberately making a concerted effort to fast-track the process and sweep the whole thing under the carpet.”
 
But Oppal said that he, too, shared some of Gervais’ concerns of police over-representation, after the number of police lawyers skyrocketed in the new year. However, he emphasized that police were facing criticism for their actions, and deserved legal advocates and to tell their side of the story.
 
Gervais, who graduated from the University of British Columbia‘s law school in 2008, was appointed to the commission after the provincial government said it would not fund lawyers for community groups connected to the missing women.
 
Later in the day, she attended the unveiling of memorial stones for Robert Pickton’s victims, at a Gastown art gallery. Several family members of missing women attending the event praised Gervais’ role in the inquiry – adding they were very saddened to see her go but shared her frustrations of not being heard or respected.

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