Groups petition for limited spots in Missing Women Commission

The Missing Women Commission of Inquiry held hearings in Vancouver on Monday to determine which groups and individuals should be granted standing at the Inquiry, which will begin later this year.

Commissioner Wally Oppal began the proceedings by addressing a roomful of lawyers who represented victims' family members, women's rights advocates, aboriginal leaders, and other interest groups seeking standing.

In his opening remarks, Oppal explained that the government of B.C. established the Commission of Inquiry in September 2010 to answer questions raised during the Robert William Pickton trial.

"The trial and investigation revealed some of the most horrific crimes in human history. Crimes against women, crimes against vulnerable women, crimes against humanity," said Oppal. "The social issue, the legal issue of missing women is a national issue. Therefore we look forward to your advice so that these tragedies may be averted."

The inquiry will ask why charges of attempted murder against Pickton were stayed in 1998. It will examine police investigations of women who disappeared between 1997 and 2002. When Oppal submits his report in December 2011, he is expected to make recommendations about how women can be better protected in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside and all of B.C.

Oppal's opening remarks also addressed some of the grievances presented to him earlier this month at two community forums in Vancouver and Prince George, the city in the centre of B.C. near The Highway of Tears. Critics asked that the inquiry start with cases of missing women dating back to the 1970s, but Oppal rejected this.

"I must make clear that we understand the concerns. But I must say that we are confined to the terms of reference that the government has given us," Oppal said.

Investigate systemic biases, say aboriginal and women's groups

The Commission received 22 requests for standing. Oppal automatically granted standing to the Vancouver Police Department, the RCMP, the justice system, and family members of missing and murdered women.

The remaining 18 made short speeches on Monday summarizing what specialized knowledge they could contribute to assist Oppal in formulating recommendations.

Beverly Jacobs, a lawyer who represented the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, noted that many of B.C.'s missing and murdered women were aboriginal.

"[Union director Grand Chief] Stewart Phillip has been supporting the families on the ground and wants to maintain that relationship," Jacobs said. The Union of B.C. Chiefs is seeking standing because "First Nations must become part of the solution."

The Carrier Sekani First Nations, located on The Highway of Tears, was represented by Robyn Gervais. She said that out of the 18 women who have disappeared from the highway in Northern B.C., 17 were aboriginal. The Carrier Sekani should be represented, she said, because they can make recommendations for better police co-ordination in remote areas.

Many of the requests for standing emphasised that systemic discrimination --sexism, racism, and biases against drug users and sex-trade workers -- contributed to law enforcement's inability to protect vulnerable women.

Speaking for the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, lawyer Jason Gratl stated that seven of Vancouver's missing women had been members of VANDU. Drug users stay away from police because they are afraid of being arrested. When they do complain to authorities, their reliability is questioned and they are often barred from giving testimony.

Those barriers may have contributed to the Crown's decision to drop attempted murder charges against Pickton in 1998. VANDU would like to offer insights into drug users' relationships with police, Gratl told the commission.

Lawyer Katrina Pacey, who spoke on behalf of a coalition of three groups for sex-trade workers, said her clients face similar biases. Their drop-in centres, street outreach programs, and bad date reporting systems have given them a ground-level understanding of vulnerable women.

"Sex-trade workers still face insurmountable barriers in terms of reporting to the police. And women keep going missing," Pacey told the Commission.

Some applicants question fairness of selection process

Representatives of many of the groups seeking standing say they doubt that Oppal can be impartial. He was B.C.'s attorney general in 2006, when the courts stayed 20 of the 26 charges brought against Pickton. Some of the parties seeking standing are family members of missing or murdered women for whom no justice has been obtained.

Critics also claim that, in the past, Oppal expressed opposition to a Missing Women Inquiry. Since last Thursday, a petition has been circulating online and on the streets of the DTES demanding Oppal's replacement. 

"We have no confidence with his appointment," said Grand Chief Phillip, in an interview with rabble.ca. "He was part of government, and he has made a number of public statements about his feeling regarding this public inquiry."

At Monday's hearing, Oppal did not mention the petition or any criticism of his appointment as commissioner. He did, however, explain the delay in establishing a commission of inquiry.

"It is not possible to hold a commission while legal proceedings are under way," Oppal said.

Pickton's appeal of his conviction on six charges of murder was overturned in August 2010, a month before the Commission was established.

Douglas King of the Pivot Legal Society, a group of lawyers who offer services to low-income and vulnerable Downtown Eastside residents and who have also put forward an application for standing, said that Oppal's personal background is unlikely to taint his decisions about standing.

Oppal has stated that he wants to be as inclusive as possible in his selections. Time and monetary restrictions, rather than personal biases, may restrict the number of participants selected, King said in a telephone interview.

"Ideally, the most thorough inquiry would be the kind that could last five years and everybody who wants to speak has the opportunity to speak," King said. "But the government just doesn't have the money to do that."

A lot of the groups seeking standing are also asking the Commission for funds to hire legal counsel.

"[Oppal's] power to restrict who is in front of the hearing is his power to restrict who gets funding," said King.

Though decisions about financing applicants rest with the B.C. government, Oppal can make recommendations, which the attorney general will probably accept, according to King.

Oppal will review the applicants' submissions and make selections by the end of February.

Helen Polychronakos is a Vancouver-based freelance journalist, editor and teacher. Her blog can be read here

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