B.C.’s controversial Missing Women Commission of Inquiry — itself marred by sexual harassment allegations and accusations of a cover-up — wrapped up eight months of hearings on Wednesday, with many families and community groups again decrying the process as a sham. Outside, a circle blocked the normally busy Georgia and Granville St. intersection, drumming, singing and praying.
Cameron Ward, a lawyer for families of women killed by serial killer Robert Pickton, criticized both Commissioner Wally Oppal for rejecting key witnesses he had requested, as well as the B.C. government for refusing to fund community groups who had long campaigned for a public investigation into why police allowed Pickton to continue killing years after he came under suspicion.
Last October, B.C.’s funding rejection led to human rights, women’s and Indigenous groups boycotting the proceedings, saying the government had effectively excluded their voices from an inquiry they themselves had sought.
The Left Coast Post attended the drum circle, the final week of hearings, as well as a community closure ceremony held at CRAB park — at which star blankets were wrapped around missing women’s families and their lawyers in honour of their presence.
As drums played an honour song for the missing women, the Left Coast Post sat down by the water with Michele Pineault. In 1997, her 20-year-old daughter Stephanie Marie Lane disappeared. Six years later, Pineault learned that police had found DNA on Pickton’s farm. Here are some of her thoughts.
LEFT COAST POST: How do you feel now — the inquiry’s obviously not over (there remains the final report in four months), but hearings have formally ended now.
MICHELE PINEAULT: It’s the closing of a chapter in the Stephen King novel that I’m in. It’s the closing of a chapter and the beginning of a new one. Hopefully it’s a better one. Do Stephen King novels ever have a happy ending?
LCP: Do they? No.
MP: My daughter’s life was taken — there’s no happy ending for me. The only thing we can hope to do is go on and do the best we can. I’m raising a 16-year-old grandson — I just want the best for him.
LCP: That’s Stephanie’s son?
MP: Stephanie’s son. He’s 16 now. He’s here today.
LCP: He must be terribly affected by this.
MP: He was a baby, so he didn’t know her before. How do you grieve for what you didn’t know? On the other hand, I saw him today break down, and I haven’t seen that in 12 years. The last time I saw him break down was at a memorial we had for her.
LCP: How has it felt to watch this inquiry, and to see the kinds of ways it’s unfolded. It’s been eight months of seemingly continuous drama.
MP: It was a lot of drama. I came out with more questions than I did going in. I almost wish there was no inquiry — almost. You can put it on the back-burner. You can go days without thinking about it. But this whole time, this is what we have lived, and it’s been the hardest time. After my daughter disappeared, it was six years before I found out her DNA was even on the Pickton farm. I didn’t know where she was from ’97 to 2003. Like I said, it’s a Stephen King novel.
LCP: Stephanie disappeared around the time of the Anderson attack (for which attempted murder charges against Pickton were dropped by the Crown).
MP: Two months before.
LCP: There’s an example of how they could have caught Pickton much earlier, based on that. And here’s what they might have found if they’d actually raided then, and collected evidence then of earlier murders.
MP: Then, of course, we found out (in this inquiry) that he’s been a serial killer since 1991, and an active serial killer since 1995. These are all thing we found out during the inquiry — things that I didn’t know.
LCP: What else did you learn that was significant or shocking to you?
MP: … I was shocked by (Commissioner Wally) Oppal doing a slasher movie (on a weekend between hearings; he played a serial killer’s murder victim). That is sick. To do a serial killer movie while this inquiry’s going on — that’s disgusting. Though he says he did it on his own time, it was pretty brutal.
LCP: Was that a low point.
LCP: Was there anything positive that came out of this?
MP: For me, positive was the support, the families that I’ve met. I’ve got some really good friends out of this. All the supporters, the people who have been out there every day helping us to get through this. We couldn’t have done it by ourselves. The families clinging to each other, and the support from a lot of different groups, has been great.
LCP: Personally, what’s carried you through? What’s kept you strong through this?
MP: My grandson. At one point, I didn’t know if I should even keep going. I’ve done this because, at the end of the day, I want to say that I did everything I could. I came home one day from the inquiry — it was a long day — and he said, ‘Mom, where have you been all day?’ I said, ‘At court.’ And he said, ‘Mom, I haven’t told you this, but I’m really proud of you.’ At one point I thought I couldn’t do it any more, but when he said that to me, it made me know I was doing the right thing.
LCP: Could you share something about Stephanie that you’d really like the world to know about?
MP: Stephanie was a presence in herself, she was. To know her was to love her. She loved to laugh and have fun. She had this laugh — as soon as she laughed, you had to laugh. And she was klutzy! She was the klutziest, klutziest thing. She often had scabby knees from falling down. One day — spaghetti was her favourite — and I had cooked dinner. She had a plateful, but lo and behold she dropped it. I told her to get another plate, she came back into the room with another plate — down it went again! I said, ‘There’s no more!’ There’s so many memories.
LCP: You have her on your shirt here. Is that new?
MP: It is. (Dance group) Butterflies in Spirit had it made before a performance, three days before Stephanie’s birthday. I’m an honorary butterfly.
LCP: When’s her birthday?
MP: May 28th. She would have been 36. She’s been gone 15 years now; she was 20 years old.
LCP: What do you think about, when you think of her?
MP: It’s hard to think that I have a 36-year-old daughter, because I lost her when she was 20. It’s so young — she was a baby still. She wasn’t out on the streets — Stephanie wasn’t down in the Downtown Eastside, she wasn’t there yet. She started dancing when she was 18 years old, got into the drug scene, and from there…
LCP: Was there a witness on the stand that inspired you or you’ll remember from this inquiry?
MP: I can really recall the families’ testimony. One day after their testimony (in October 2011) it hit me so hard, I couldn’t even come back the next day. I didn’t even come back to the inquiry until January 11, when the inquiry resumed — which happened to be the 15th anniversary of Stephanie being gone. That date just called me back.
LCP: It must have been difficult to have this information brought up all the time?
MP: It is. I don’t know what’s going to come of this inquiry. (Community groups) are calling for a UN inquiry — I don’t know if they’re going to go through with that. I think we need more answers. As difficult as it may be, it’s difficult to live life daily anyway — we need to find the answers.
LCP: What answers are you looking for?
MP: I want to know what really happened. We did not find out what really happened.
LCP: The inquiry seems to have heard the police made some mistakes, but the lawyers said the only criminal here is Pickton.
MP: I’m not sure of that either. When he was in jail, he mentioned there were 15 others going down with him. I do not believe he did it by himself. When I saw him, he didn’t even look like he had the mentality to get away with something like this. The whole thing with his brother (Dave) being on the property. That’s one thing that hit me in the inquiry — they asked, ‘How come (police) didn’t get more surveillance?’ One of the RCMP said, ‘Everybody knows what was going on, we couldn’t get surveillance because it’s such a small town.’ Well, if everybody knew what was going on, why didn’t they know what was going on on that farm?
LCP: Not only with the women, but they were burying cars (for insurance fraud), they were dealing drugs.
MP: And then there was Bev Hyacinth (a civilian Coquitlam RCMP employee who Oppal rejected as a witness). She was at a party at Piggy’s Palace in 1999 and saw Pickton with somebody, and two weeks later it turned out it was (missing woman) Dawn Crey.
LCP: So you think this wasn’t just incompetence from the police? You believe there was a cover-up or conspiracy?
MP: Absolutely. Look at all the documents they lost in the Anderson (1997 attempted murder) case. Those files are to be kept, and have to go through three steps to get destroyed. They went through all three steps to destroy them. Why? It seems too convenient.
LCP: A lot of answers haven’t come out, then?
MP: When Cameron Ward (counsel for 25 murdered women’s families) got documents from the commission, much of them was redacted. Most of the information was gone. They only let him see what they wanted him to see.
LCP: Why do you think the Province held the inquiry, if it didn’t yield answers or satisfy the public? Isn’t that the point of an inquiry — to satisfy the public that justice was done?
MP: That’s a question only they can answer. Why did they hold it? Because they certainly didn’t do a good job of it. If they were going to hold an inquiry, they should have held it and did the job right. Wally Oppal knows how people were saying this was not finished yet, but he was in a hurry to get through it. Then they changed to a panel system, and had four, five people to a panel.
LCP: What’s the problem with that?
MP: The lawyer can’t cross-examine properly. They were getting so little time to cross-examine each witness. They were big players, people who were really involved in the (Pickton) case at the time. If you’re sitting there and your boss is next to you, are you going to talk bad about him?
LCP: As an Indigenous woman yourself, could you talk about how this has affected you? There’s 600 missing or murdered Native women across Canada. Does that weigh on you to know your daughter is one of them?
MP: It’s a horrible, horrible figure. That’s way too many murdered women. A woman is a woman is a woman. I’ve been called a ‘red apple.’ I said, ‘What’s that?’ Red on the outside, white on the inside. That’s truly what I am — I was born and raised in East Vancouver. I don’t have any Native culture. My grandmother didn’t, my mother didn’t. This is totally new to me.
LCP: Has this been eye-opening for you, then?
MP: Absolutely. I love it — it’s powerful. I went to shut down the Arthur Laing bridge last week with the Musqueam (First Nation, protesting development of their burial ground). That was powerful. To know that is part of me, and a part of me I’ve missed all my life. The first time I smudged (a cleansing ritual with sage), I didn’t even know what they were doing.
LCP: What’s next for you?
MP: I’m going to take a break, and see what comes of this. But hopefully something will. I’ve thought about going to the Downtown Eastside to help some of the organizations down there. If I could help save a life…
LCP: My last question: what gives you faith; what gives you hope?
MP: You know, I have no spirituality, but I always hoped that I would. I always wished that I could find something. I was raised Catholic but I’m not practicing. Being part of this — with the drums — it gives me such an inner strength and it’s really a good thing to be part of. What keeps me going? Number one: my grandson, Stephen.