Withhold judgment until missing women’s commission report is issued, Oppal tells critics

Published in The Tyee | November 20, 2012 | Circulation: 340,000 unique monthly readers

Kasari Govender (right), executive director of West Coast LEAF, speaks at a press conference for the release of the “Blueprint for an Inquiry” report Nov. 19, with Darcie Bennett of Pivot Legal Society (left). Photo by David P. Ball.

The independence of the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry (MWCI), which examined why serial killer Robert Pickton wasn’t caught sooner, is in “grave doubt,” concluded three of the province’s legal advocacy organizations in a report released yesterday.

But Commissioner Wally Oppal said critics should withhold their judgment until reading his recommendations, which are due the end of this month.

“My report puts forward strong recommendations for change and it is imperative that everyone comes together to ensure that we can better protect our most vulnerable citizens,” he said in a statement released yesterday. “If individuals, groups and associations don’t find a way to support my report, the recommendations will not be acted upon.

“That does not serve our communities or leave a positive and lasting legacy for the missing and murdered women.”

The report critical of the commission by the BC Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA), Pivot Legal Society and West Coast LEAF raised a number of issues.

“Financially, the commission spent 20 times the operating budget of the major drop in centre for sex workers in Vancouver,” it read. “And yet [it] left many of the community’s most pressing questions unanswered.”

The inquiry “re-perpetuated the very problems it sought to alleviate,” said Kasari Govender, executive director of West Coast LEAF, at a Carnegie Centre press conference yesterday morning.

“(It) could have been the starting point for changes to the Vancouver Police Department and the RCMP and the way we structure our justice system to keep women safe… There’s a huge amount of distrust about how the justice system operates, and this process was a moment in time to begin the healing process and begin the journey forward. This was a missed opportunity to foster reconciliation and community healing,” Govender said.

Among the recommendations in the organizations’ report, titled “Blueprint for an Inquiry,” are concrete examples from well-known public investigations around the world.

The examples include training trusted community groups to collect witness testimonies, an aboriginal cultural and rights awareness session for all lawyers involved, and tougher protection offered for witnesses’ privacy and safety.

The report cites Ontario’s 2003-2006 inquiry into the police killing of Dudley George at Ipperwash Provincial Park, as well as South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and the U.K.’s 1998-2010 Bloody Sunday inquiry into a Northern Ireland massacre decades earlier.

“The most successful commissions consult widely, early and often,” said Darcie Bennett, campaigns director with Pivot Legal Society. “In an inquiry process, like in most things, you get out what you put in. There simply is no alternative to fully engaging and supporting the communities who have been impacted and are most aware of what needs to change to prevent future tragedies.”

The report also criticizes the hiring of a former Vancouver police officer, John Boddie, as its executive director — suggesting that it’s another example of the fox guarding the hen house, or police watching police.

“Blueprint for an Inquiry” reserved its strongest criticism for the B.C. government’s early refusal to fund community and aboriginal organizations, whose standing had been approved by Oppal — a decision which led to a mass boycott by Amnesty International, the Assembly of First Nations and dozens of other groups. Without the budgets to hire lawyers, the report argues, no fair representation could be expected.

The denial was particularly troubling given the public’s funding of 25 lawyers representing police and government, some from Canada’s largest law firms, the authors added.

“Those resources,” Bennett urged, “could have been re-allocated to include the voices of the community.”

But the refusal to fund groups’ participation was more than simply a budgetary problem, argued BCCLA president Lindsay Lyster.

“The government’s decision to do that put the independence of this commission into very grave doubt,” she said. “More balance funding, and government respect for the standing and funding decisions of this or any other commissioner, are essential to the credibility of this or any other such inquiries.”

Pickton was charged with the murders of 33 women. Under Oppal’s supervision as then attorney general, he was tried and convicted for six second-degree murders.

The MWCI was established in 2011 to examine why Pickton was able to continue killing mostly aboriginal women from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside for years, despite several key informants and eyewitnesses offering police tips, dozens of missing person reports filed, and Pickton himself charged with attempted murder of a sex worker in 1997 — only to see his charges dropped by a Crown prosecutor, whose files disappeared.

“I put a lot of faith in the inquiry, believing it was going to bring forth justice and answers to what went wrong — to why these women went missing,” Jennifer Allen, a former Downtown Eastside sex worker and founder of the support organization Jen’s Kitchen, told The Tyee. “Unfortunately, all I saw was that the inquiry was a joke.

“We had aboriginal women standing outside and protesting the inquiry, who should have been inside talking on the stand about what was happening and why women were going missing. In the end, it became a mess. It makes us question if these missing women’s families ever going to get justice.”

For Allen, the exclusion of community groups and key witnesses — plus the police refusal to disclose all relevant documents — are a symptom of a “two-tiered” justice system where police tend to ignore crimes against poor, racialized women, she said. But ultimately, the Vancouver Copwatch organizer concluded, it is up to the community to hold authorities’ feet to the fire.

“Part of me is hopeful,” she told The Tyee. “In the end, what’s going to have to happen is we’re going to have to read the recommendations and make sure those happen.

“We’re not able to rely on the police or the government to make it happen.”

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