Inquiry’s failure succeeds in pulling together groups

Published in Windspeaker newspaper | May 1, 2012 | Circulation: 145,000

Cee Jai Julian (right), a former sex worker in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, addresses an April 10 press conference, with Battered Women’s Support Services worker Lisa Yellow-Quill. Photo by David P. Ball

A coalition of interested groups have rejected pleas to rejoin BC’s missing women inquiry, saying they will instead focus on a United Nations investigation and proposed royal commission into the circumstances surrounding Canada’s nearly 600 murdered or missing Aboriginal women.

Only weeks after the tearful resignation of lawyer Robyn Gervais who was representing Aboriginals at the inquiry and who left frustrated by the back seat the inquiry was making her take, an open letter from 15 groups – including the Assembly of First Nations, the Native Women’s Association of Canada and Amnesty International – called the hearings “flawed and illegitimate.”

They vowed to support the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, which in January announced its intentions to initiate an investigation.

“The high levels of violence experienced by Aboriginal women, as well as the hundreds of missing and murdered Aboriginal women across the country are evidence of Canada’s failure to meet its international legal obligations to respect, protect and fulfill the fundamental human rights of women,” the coalition stated. “Our organizations will dedicate what limited resources we can offer to working with the United Nations to facilitate their investigations and fact-finding processes, in order to ensure that Canada is held internationally accountable for ongoing human rights violations.

“We have no confidence that the Commission of Inquiry can provide such accountability.”

Groups also proposed a federal investigation.

“We’re seeking other ways to get justice,” said Lisa Yellow-Quill of Vancouver’s Battered Women’s Support Services. “We’re calling for a national royal commission.
“We know what the root causes are – but we want them on paper – of racism, sexism and poverty.”

Organizations listed eight criticisms, including limited inquiry terms of reference, the refusal to fund their participation, and “impossible” timelines for their refusal to go back to the inquiry led by Commissioner Wally Oppal.

According to Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, the inquiry’s failures stem from provincial inaction.

“I want to be absolutely clear on this – it was Premier (Christy) Clark that strangled the inquiry when she absolutely refused to fund the representative groups here today,” Phillip told Windspeaker. “It denied us the opportunity to engage legal counsel to cross-examine police witnesses – that opportunity is gone.

“There has been a shift in focus to working towards a royal commission of inquiry at the national level, and further to that there’s work ongoing at the international level through the United Nations. . . It has to do with organizing an ongoing campaign to change systemic racism, sexism and classism that permeate the criminal justice system from top to bottom.”

He said groups have been meeting often to plan those efforts, and would not let a “failed inquiry” derail them. Although Canada has not responded to the UN, Amnesty said that it would be unprecedented to refuse.

“There’s no doubt it’s going ahead,” Craig Scott of Amnesty International Canada’s Indigenous campaigner told Windspeaker. “The question is whether it will benefit from the cooperation of the Canadian government or not.
“We’ve had visits by UN special rapporteurs before. . . These mechanisms have full access to Canada. Certainly it would be a terrible thing for that to be reversed. It would be an extraordinary thing for Canada to rescind its invitation.”

Amnesty – the world’s largest rights group – has now fully distanced itself from the inquiry, despite initial hopes of participating, he added.

“The deeper question is about the factors that put Indigenous women – marginalized women – at risk of violence, and what are the structural changes needed,” he said. “This has to part of any credible investigation into what happens in the Downtown Eastside (DTES).
Families of missing women, whose DNA were found on serial killer Robert Pickton’s pig farm, expressed frustration with the groups’ refusal to take part in the inquiry.

“It’s disappointing because many of them have a lot of things the commission should hear,” said Ernie Crey, whose sister Dawn was among the victims. “They have a lot of important information and on-the-ground knowledge about the lives of the women in the (DTES) before many of them vanished.

“I’m disappointed in our provincial government. The community groups that have turned their back on the inquiry and walked away . . . but I understand why.”

The formal social worker welcomed any investigation into systemic problems in the DTES.

“It became really personal, where I’m concerned, when my sister became one of the missing women in November 2000,” said Crey, a Sto:lo First Nation fisheries consultant. “I’m from a family that fought really hard for this inquiry, despite some of its shortcomings.

“That’s why I’m keenly interested in this inquiry, regardless of its shortcomings. I’m interested in any efforts to make life different down there. . . We want to talk about what changes should transpire, regardless of what Oppal’s recommendations may be, to address the social, economic and health circumstances in the community, so people like my sister are actually helped.”

Oppal will publish his report in June on what went wrong in the Pickton investigation, why the province dropped an attempted murder charge in 1997, as well as police failures to heed several witnesses’ warnings about the killer five years before his 2002 arrest.

But with groups vowing to push internationally, abandoning the inquiry altogether, one positive outcome is the coalition of human rights, Native, women’s and civil liberties groups which has emerged, Phillip said.

“There’s no question about it – the interesting dimension to all this is it’s the miserable failure of the inquiry itself that brought us together,” he said. “We’ve been working very closely over the last number of months, particularly when it became evident the inquiry wasn’t able to fulfill its mandate.

“It’s a work in progress. I’m absolutely optimistic.”

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