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B.C. Attorney General Berry Penner has denied funding to a series of groups who were slated to participate in the Missing Women's Commission of Inquiry.
This decision has left a sombre tone around my office. Pivot Legal Society, along with the other groups who were granted either full or partial standing, will receive no funding to prepare submissions. Without representation from these groups, the inquiry will not tap an important knowledge base.
To understand the gravity of this decision, we have to take a few steps back. For decades, women have been going missing from the DTES of Vancouver and the first to notice have been their friends, fellow community members and service organizations. Why did they go missing? Because these women faced greater levels of danger and violence than the average citizen will ever know. Working in the sex trade is dangerous, and in Canada, it is more dangerous than it has to be.
The relationship between most DTES residents and the police is distrustful, add to that a sense that what you do to survive is not only seen as wrong but is criminalized, and the likelihood that you will seek the protection of the police is slim. It is even less likely that you would feel you could head down to the police station about a missing friend, and actually be listened to. The justice system is not connecting with the people it's meant to protect.
Denying funding will, once again, prevent marginalized voices from being heard and avoid creating relationships with the DTES, but it also has other consequences. Providing a voice, in this instance, is not a symbolic move to make the community feel empowered. Ensuring that community groups have a presence at the Inquiry is about accessing crucial evidence regarding the lived experience of people in the DTES and accessing their expertise on how the Pickton tragedy could have been prevented. Denying funding is turning a blind eye to those who have knowledge, and who can substantiate with fact, things that might otherwise be dismissed as misconception or rumour.
Though less adversarial than a trial, an inquiry is meant to take into account different sides of an argument before publishing its report. As it currently stands, this will not be the case at the Missing Women's Commission of Inquiry. The RCMP and the VPD have published reports about their investigations which the Inquiry will consider. In the absence of any other voices, these reports will be packaged and sold as the true unfolding of events. Already dominant and powerful voices are rendered more powerful by the comparative disadvantage suffered by the unfunded groups.
By granting standing to these groups, the Commissioner held that they have an interest in the outcome and/or can further the objectives of the inquiry. Commissioner Oppal also found that these groups cannot participate without financial assistance from government. By denying funding the AG is not only denigrating the value of the experiences of continually marginalized groups, but he is denying the Commissioner access to all relevant information. This inquiry arose out of ongoing and systemic discrimination, and will be rendered impotent by the same discrimination.
Heather McMahon is a law student at the University of Windsor and an intern with Pivot Legal Society.
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