Missing Women Inquiry’s loses valuable voices with lack of provincial funding
// Samantha Thompson

In 2009, 26.3 per cent of homicide victims were female, according to Statistics Canada. Within this, evidence has shown that Aboriginal women face considerably higher risks of violence and homicide than non-Aboriginal women: according to the 2009 Juristat report, Aboriginal women were three times as likely to experience violent victimization than non-Aboriginal women. It is our prerogative to recognize that there is a serious problem with these statistics in that the disproportionate amount of victims are women, Aboriginal, or both. Unfortunately, despite the shocking statistics, there is still a lot of progress that needs to be achieved in order to positively change this systemic problem, which partially occurs as a result of socioeconomic circumstances.

Since the 1990s, many women have been reported as missing, with relatively little action taken to resolve the problem. Between Jan. 23 1997 and Feb. 5 2002, a huge number of women were reported missing from the Downtown Eastside (DTES) in Vancouver. It was suggested that there was a serial killer active in the community, yet the complaints that were related to missing women were not taken seriously. In many instances, the women reported as missing were Aboriginal, sex workers, or both.

On Jan. 27 1998, the Criminal Justice Branch decided to pause proceedings on charges against Robert William Pickton for attempted murder, assault with a weapon, forcible confinement, and aggravated assault. However, in 2002 the police arrested Pickton, and he was charged with 27 degrees of first degree murder, six counts of second degree murder, and evidence at the trial indicated that Pickton may have murdered as many as 49 women – something that, it has been suggested, could have been avoided if the stay of proceedings against Pickton hadn’t happened, and if the reports of missing women had been taken seriously in the first place.

As is standard practice when something goes wrong, a public inquiry into the investigations surrounding the Pickton trial was launched in September 2010. Entitled the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry, the Honourable Wally Oppal, Q.C., was named commissioner, and his final report of the commission’s findings due on Dec. 31 2011. The inquiry will look into the investigation of reported cases of the women missing from the DTES between 1997 and 2002, and why it took so long to convict Pickton.

“There are two primary objectives for the commission: one is to look at ... the investigations by the Vancouver Police Department and the RCMP… and whether there were mistakes made in the investigations which led to Pickton not being apprehended sooner,” says Christopher Freimond, spokesperson for the inquiry. “The other is to look at a decision by the Criminal Justice Branch … They made a decision at one point during the Pickton investigation not to proceed with charges of attempted murder against him after allegations were made by a woman that he had tried to kill her.”
“ The objective of the commission’s work will be to see whether any mistakes were made in the police investigation or in the criminal justice branch decision, and if so, what needs to change to make sure that those types of mistakes are never made again.”
Certainly, the Pickton trial is not new news; however, situations arising out of the Missing Women Inquiry suggest that although the inquiry was launched with honest intentions, its ability to orchestrate any sort of change in the approach towards cases involving missing women is fast decreasing – and with the inquiry’s hearings scheduled to occur on Oct. 11, they’re running short on time to make things right.

One of the first concerns is that Oppal himself has been placed under fire, as he has been criticized for not remaining objective as the commissioner of an inquiry. Oppal recommended that the province fund the participation of the families of Pickton’s victims and twelve groups that advocate primarily on behalf of women, street sex workers, and Aboriginals; however, when the province agreed to fund the participation of only the families, and not the advocacy groups, Oppal wrote a letter and left a message on the answering machine of the previous provincial Attorney General, Barry Penner. These actions had critics questioning Oppal’s objectivity in the case, suggesting that he had already made a decision about what had happened prior to being presented with any evidence from either side. In addition, it has been suggested that Oppal is in a conflict of interest, as he was Attorney General himself during part of the Pickton murder investigation.

At the end of August 2011, Oppal issued a statement to address some of these concerns, emphasizing that he had not yet made any conclusions prematurely about the issues that he was investigating. He quoted part of his voicemail left to Penner, which read, “These are the women who complained to the police about women being missing…[and] the police gave … the back of their hands to these women, and disregarded what they had to say. So they can’t cross‐examine the police, who are of course well‐armed with publicly funded lawyers…and the government is now being seen as funding the people who allegedly [did] everything wrong and ignored the women, ignored the victims but … funding … will not go and fund the victims, and not fund the women, the poor aboriginal women. That’s what the government is seen as. I just want you to know that.”

“I simply wanted to emphasize that these allegations deserve to be explored, and that I believe funded counsel for those making the allegations, not just for those refuting them, would assist the process,” said Oppal in the statement. Funding for participants would provide them with legal counsel during the hearings of the inquiry.

What is perhaps most interesting about this series of proceedings, though, is that it is fairly standard practice for the government to fund the participation of whichever groups the commissioner deems necessary. For the other groups to participate in the commission would cost the government an estimated $1.5 million, which is pocket change when placed in comparison to the $100 million that they have already spent on the Pickton investigation prior to the inquiry. Unfortunately, failing to provide funding to more participants is causing other groups to doubt the future accuracy of the conclusions of the inquiry, potentially spending a significant amount of the taxpayer’s dollar for untrustworthy results.

The lack of funding for these groups has been questioned by activist organizations, the BC NDP, and Wally Oppal himself. As the due date of Oppal’s final report draws nearer, the Missing Women’s Commission Inquiry, despite its hopefully good intentions, continues to be heavily scrutinized.

Although the provincial government has firmly adapted the stance that they are here for the families of victims from the Robert Pickton case, they are not funding all of the families affected. Freimond said that the legal counsel for the families, Vancouver lawyer Cameron Ward, is representing 17 families, not “all” of them as the provincial government has been implying.
When asked about the funding in the Legislature’s question period, Premier Christy Clark responded, “It is tragic what has happened in the Downtown Eastside, and it continues to be tragic — what happens down there for women and children and men who struggle every day in what is certainly one of Canada's poorest postal codes. It has been a challenge for governments for decades to try and get our hands around the issues down there, try and wrestle them down and make sure that it's a better place tomorrow than it has been in the past.”

“The government is funding the families to be able to be heard at the commission, and we are making sure that as many voices as possible are heard before that commission. It seems to me to be our obligation to do that, and we're certainly living up to it, although it isn't required by law for us to do that. We want to make sure those voices are heard because, as I said, the issues facing women and children and men who live in the Downtown Eastside are serious, and they are urgent.”

However, as the funding is not for all of the families, nor the other participants, many voices are not being heard. In his Ruling on Participation and Funding Recommendation, Oppal said that he had concluded that, without funding, those participants who had applied for funding would not be able to participate in the hearing portion of the inquiry.

“I know the inquiry is committed to making sure that we can hear from as many voices as absolutely possible, because we want to make sure that the Downtown Eastside is a better place, is a safer place, and is the kind of close-knit, healthy community that many of the rest of us have the good fortune to live in,” said Clark.

In addition, the government is funding full participants like the Vancouver Police Department and the RCMP, as they are government organizations, which critics have pointed out as evidence of potential bias.
"So, we're left with a situation where every police officer who testifies will have a lawyer, but everyone on the victim's side has to be on their own or rely on the one lawyer appointed for the victims' families," said Doug King, lawyer for Pivot Legal Society, to CBC.
Meanwhile, groups like CRAB–Water for Life Society, Downtown Eastside Sex Workers United Against Violence, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, the Assembly of First Nations and the Native Women’s Association of Funding are not receiving funding. Many of these participants applied for the right to participate together as an alliance, so that multiple organizations with similar purposes would not apply and thus create an overlap of the interests the groups represent. Several of the groups have been working with women affected by issues coming out of the inquiry, women in the Downtown Eastside, yet their lack of funding will likely result in many important witnesses becoming reluctant to step forward – as they would have to do so without proper legal counsel.

Many of the groups who did not receive full funding have been very vocal about their disappointment in the government’s decision, as have MPs for the BC NDP and Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson. Robertson wrote a letter urging Attorney General Barry Penner to reconsider his decision to deny funding, saying that it “threatens the legitimacy of the Inquiry’s final results.”
In May and June 2011, Oppal decided to hold a pre-hearing conference that gave participants the “opportunity to make submissions to [Oppal] about how the Attorney General’s funding decision affects their interests,” says the Commissioner’s progress report.

During the pre-hearing conference, Art Verlieb, Q.C., Senior Commission Counsel on the inquiry, said that without funding, “a number of participants would be unable to participate in the hearing without counsel due to their limited resources and capacity. In addition, given the marginalized position of many of the participants, it is unreasonable to expect that they would be able to participate unrepresented in a hearing that requires the review of hundreds of thousands of documents, technical cross-examination of professional witnesses and an understanding of the policies and procedures of the commission.”

Although the Inquiry began as an evidentiary hearing process, on March 3, 2011 the B.C. government granted the inquiry the powers of a Study Commission, which is supposed to maximize participation without the strict hearing procedure that requires legal counsel. The commission will now have both the hearing and study commission procedures. This comes as a good thing, as some participants were concerned about the terms of reference for the Inquiry.

“From the beginning we had worries about the terms of reference. It's too legal, too much like a trial. That is not the best way to engage with vulnerable women, in a trial-like setting," staff lawyer with Pivot Legal Society Douglas King told the Vancouver Sun.

“All groups with standing may still present before the commissioner in formal hearings,” said the provincial government in a press release. “Furthermore, they may take part in the study commission, a less formal process that does not require legal representation.”

However, it seems as though Oppal’s conclusion that the participants who had applied for funding would be unable to participate in the proceedings was accurate. Since the announcement that the province would only be funding the lawyer for the families of victims, several other participants have pulled out of the inquiry.

Most recently, Pivot Legal Society had to leave the inquiry, with the non-profit citing the government’s failure to fund sex worker organizations, women’s groups, and Aboriginal groups to participate in the inquiry as one of their reasons for withdrawal.

“Since the Inquiry was called in 2010, there have been a number of government decisions that have effectively shut out many of the groups who lobbied most strongly for this inquiry. As a result, we have come to doubt the ability of the Commission to conduct a fair and impartial inquiry,” said King in a press release. Although the integrity of the inquiry was a contributing factor, Pivot has stated that in the end it came down to the necessity for their organization to use their resources to achieve the most positive impact for marginalized women.

Other groups who have left the inquiry include: Native Women’s Association of Canada; Ending Violence Association of B.C. and West Coast LEAF; Women’s Equality and Security Coalition; Carrier Sekani Tribal Council and the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs; and Native Courtworker and Counseling Association of BC.

Even with the official hearings just around the corner, the participants are still continuing to advocate for funding.
Last week, seventeen families of victims and thirty women’s, aboriginal, and community groups issued an open letter to Christy Clark, requesting an intervention from the premier in what the letter called a “broken process”. The letter asked Clark to meet with the groups so that she could hear their concerns and “take steps to ensure that the Commission lives up to its vital mandate,” giving her the deadline of Oct. 5 to respond.

“The people and communities who are intended to be benefited by this process have been made to feel that their participation is not needed, or even particularly desired,” said the letter.

In response to the letter, however, interim Attorney General Shirley Bond released a statement that said, “Let me be clear, we will not be intervening in the work of the Commission. Given the budget challenges the ministry is facing, we have made our priority funding legal counsel for the families of the murdered and missing women. On the request of the Commissioner, we amended the commission’s terms of reference to make it a joint hearing and study commission expressly so that it was more inclusive and less formal so participants would not need legal counsel.”

The government makes mistakes on a regular basis, regardless of which party has been elected. These women weren't brutally murdered because they were being stupid: they were killed because they were women, and this shouldn't be considered acceptable. Now, the government isn’t funding important voices for the inquiry, and, as a result, other organizations (like the Pivot Legal Society) are boycotting the inquiry. With so few participants in the inquiry that aren’t police officers or the Crown, how can we be sure that the inquiry is going to be beneficial enough to warrant the estimated $3-$5 million the government has budgeted for this inquiry? It is, in fact, likely to cost considerably more than that, seeing how as costs are already estimated at $3 million and the hearing hasn’t even started.

One suggestion that has been made is that an Amber Alert system, similar to the one used to find Kienan Hebert earlier this month, be put in place for missing women. Hebert was found shortly after the Amber Alert was sounded, and this kind of efficiency could have a significant impact on finding missing women.

However, a lack of a system to find the women is one of many concerns relating to the issue. In addition, factors like poverty, stereotyping, and police investigation potentially affect the ability to put a halt to this systemic problem. As it is one of the goals of the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry to isolate these contributing factors and make recommendations on how the province can solve the problem, the ability to change the current situation then lies in the hands of the provincial government.
“The commissioner…will make recommendations to the provincial government in his report and it will be up to the government then to decide whether or not it wants to implement those changes or not,” says Freimond.

With their failure to provide funding to important groups coupled with their disappointing decision not to pay heed to Oppal’s recommendations for funding, the inquiry has become less reliable and the women who are missing from this process will once again be placed at a disadvantage.

As per the terms of reference for the inquiry, Oppal must submit a final report with recommendations to the Attorney General on or before Dec. 31 2011. Some time after that, the province will decide what action (if any) they will take. Only time will tell if this inquiry, which may have begun with good intentions, is worth the estimated $3 million price tag it has already cost to receive only half of the picture. With the hearing set to go ahead on Oct. 11, time is quickly running out to make things right.

Participants in the inquiry are (this list includes those participants who have withdrawn from the inquiry):
Full participants
Vancouver Police Department and Vancouver Police Board
Government of Canada (representing the RCMP)
Criminal Justice Branch
Families of Dawn Crey, Cara Ellis, Cynthia Dawn Feliks, Marnie Frey, Helen
Mae Hallmark, Georgina Papin, Dianne Rock, Mona Wilson, Jacqueline
Murdock, Angela Williams, Brenda Wolfe, Andrea Joesbury, Elsie Sabastian,
Angela Jardine, Heather Bottomley, Tiffany Drew and Andrea Borhaven as
represented by A. Cameron Ward
Vancouver Police Union
Marion Bryce, mother of Patricia Johnson as represented by Irwin
Coalition of Sex Worker-Serving Organizations
The Committee of the February 14 Women’s Memorial March and the
Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre
Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, Walk4Justice and Frank Paul
Native Women’s Association of Canada
Dr. Kim Rossmo
Constable Doug Fell as represented by Kevin Woodall.

Limited Participants
BC Civil Liberties Association, Amnesty International and PIVOT Legal Society
Ending Violence Association of BC and West Coast LEAF
Assembly of First Nations
Carrier Sekani Tribal Council and the Union of BC Indian Chiefs
Women’s Equality & Security Coalition
Native Courtworker and Counselling Association of BC
First Nations Summit
CRAB-Water for Life Society

// Samantha Thompson

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