Missing Women Inquiry Independence Questioned by Legal Advocates
British Columbia's Missing Women Commission of Inquiry into the alleged police mishandling of the Robert Pickton serial killer investigation is taking another jab from some of the very groups who had fought for an inquiry into dozens of missing, mostly aboriginal women for years.
The province acknowledged on November 22 that it has received Commissioner Wally Oppal's 1,400-page report, but said it will not release its conclusions or recommendations publicly until mid-December, according to the Canadian Press. And as this chapter of a long saga winds down, families of murdered women and Downtown Eastside (DTES) Vancouver and aboriginal service agencies are waiting expectantly, but with little optimism.
“Our justice system is a two-tiered system, where if you're rich and a certain color, the police will jump and do something about it,” Jennifer Allen, a former DTES sex worker, told Indian Country Today Media Network. “But if you're poor and of a certain skin color, the police will let you die on the street or on a pig farm.”
After leaving the survival sex trade herself, Allen started Jen's Kitchen, an organization to bring food and counseling to people involved in prostitution in Vancouver's streets, alleys and brothels. When the community's decade-long battle for a public inquiry finally succeeded, Allen hoped the process would provide answers as to why police failed to catch Robert Pickton—who confessed to killing 49 women on his pig farm, but was only convicted of six second-degree murders—sooner, despite numerous tips, informants and even the attempted murder of a sex worker. Now awaiting inquiry Commissioner Wally Oppal's final report, Allen hopes that some justice will prevail—or at very least that recommendations can help change police attitudes and behavior.
“It would mean that the inquiry really does care—that the government and police really do care about this community,” she said. “It would mean they really do care about stopping missing women, that they don't just care about rich people going missing.”
On November 19, three of the province's most prominent legal advocacy organizations released their own report on the inquiry, calling for changes in the way marginalized communities are included in future investigations and questioning the proceedings' independence.
“After all that was done, some words on paper are not going to foster the reconciliation that could have been fostered,” said Kasari Govender, executive director of West Coast LEAF, to reporters at a press conference. “One of the things we're hopeful for in the final report is recommendations that will change how police and the justice system deal with these issues in the future. I have some optimism about that. I don't have optimism that the recommendations will actually promote healing, because in order to do that, it's not a one-time deal you can come to at the end after excluding marginalized voices, after failing to fund community organizations that were trusted by the women in this community, after excluding witnesses from the process.”
The claims of exclusion were echoed by the two other organizations who released the “Blueprint for an Inquiry” report. West Coast LEAF was joined by the B.C. Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) and Pivot Legal Society in accusing the inquiry of failing to remain independent from police, of silencing and excluding key witnesses, and of refusing to force police to disclose sensitive documents about their investigations.
Oppal responded to the groups' report by calling on the community to await the release of his findings before passing judgment. He insisted his conclusions will lead to meaningful reforms.
“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. “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.”
Darcie Bennett, campaigns director with Pivot Legal Society, singled out the province's early refusal to fund lawyers for community, aboriginal and human rights organizations—despite paying for nearly 25 police, government and inquiry lawyers, some at six-figure salaries—as a key procedural failing. Because an investigation of the police is by nature “highly adversarial,” Bennett argued, it was unfair to deny equal access to legal representation, a decision which led to a mass boycott by dozens of groups including Amnesty International and the Assembly of First Nations.
“Police and government interests were well represented by teams of publicly funded lawyers from some of Canada's largest law firms,” she said at the press conference.
The “Blueprint for an Inquiry” report also used examples from South Africa to Northern Ireland of best practices for independent inquiries into wrongdoing.
“There's a number of very simple orientational fixes that could have made a very big difference,” Bennett said. “Our hope is that the government takes this as an invitation to use that knowledge and work with communities and support them.”