On July 22, 2011, the B.C. Attorney General, Barry Penner, confirmed the government’s decision to deny funding to the 13 groups who sought to participate and were granted standing at the government inquiry into the mishandling of the Robert Pickton police investigation. These 13 organizations had been previously granted “participant status” by Commissioner Oppal in the upcoming Missing Women Commission of Inquiry set to begin in October, 2011.

Funding to cover legal representation for groups independent from Canada’s legal system to participate in the upcoming inquiry has been capped to legal representation for families, and not third parties.

This has led to petitions from groups such as the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, the Carrier Sekani Tribal Council, the Native Courtworker and Counselling Association of B.C., WISH, the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre and the February 14 Memorial March Committee. These non-profit organizations claim they can’t afford to take part in the Pickton inquiry without financial assistance from the provincial government.

Previously, Commissioner Oppal had also petitioned the government for additional funding for additional groups this year in a strongly worded letter to the B.C. government, stating that expecting non-profit groups to pay their own way while agencies such as the RCMP and Vancouver police get government-funded lawyers was the “height of unfairness.”

Reaction to the funding restrictions for the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry has challenged the legitimacy of the inquiry in the eyes of the Vancouver Downtown Eastside (DTES) community and various First Nations organizations.

There have been previous calls for Commissioner Wally Oppal to step down as the head of the inquiry by members of the victim’s families.

When the Attorney General’s announcement was first made back in May 2011, Pivot Legal Society, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, and Amnesty International Canada — all three groups had formed a coalition which was granted the right to participate in the inquiry — spoke out about the exclusion, commenting in a release, “the government bodies being scrutinized in this inquiry — the Vancouver Police Department, the RCMP and the Criminal Justice Branch — will all be represented by teams of taxpayer-funded lawyers.”

“However, community groups who are seeking to hold them to account will be expected to pay for their own counsel in an inquiry that could go on for many months. The cost of participation is prohibitive so community groups are calling on AG Barry Penner to reverse his decision.”

Pivot’s campaigns director, Darcie Bennett, went on to say, “this inquiry is about the police and crown counsel’s failure to fully and effectively investigate the horrendous violence experienced by women in the DTES. The fact that the government does not want to fund community groups to participate in this inquiry is appalling and is another indication that the B.C. government is not really committed to ensuring the safety of the most marginalized women.”

On July 28, 2011, Native Woman’s Association of Canada president Jeannette Corbiere Lavell commented, “the Government of British Columbia has shut us out of the British Columbia Missing Women Commission of Inquiry and now we have no confidence that it will be able to produce a fair and balanced report. The decision of the B.C. government to restrict funding for counsel primarily to police and government agencies demonstrates how flawed and one-sided this process has become.” It has since pulled out of the inquiry in protest, followed by other groups.

On August 9, 2011, Ending Violence Association of BC (EVA BC) and West Coast LEAF publicly pulled their support for the inquiry due to the funding issue. “The failure to fund counsel for Aboriginal, sex worker and front line women’s organizations essentially shuts these groups out of the inquiry,” said EVA BC Executive Director Tracy Porteous. “We will not participate in an inquiry that will not listen to the voices of those who were closest to the missing and murdered women and their communities.”

In a letter addressed to Commissioner Oppal from Ending Violence Association of BC (EVA BC) and West Coast LEAF, they wrote that both organizations were “deeply disappointed to read Deputy Attorney General Mr. Loukidelis’ letter of July 22, 2011 confirming the government’s decision to deny funding to the 13 groups to whom you granted standing.”

Without funding for counsel, these groups are essentially shut out of the inquiry process. While we very much support the families’ interests in uncovering the truth of what happened to their daughters, our coalition cannot participate in an inquiry into the deaths of so many marginalized women when the inquiry lacks the essential participation of Aboriginal groups, sex worker groups, and front line women’s organizations.”

“We are extremely concerned that the government’s failure to commit the necessary resources to this Commission is an indication that the government is failing to take women’s safety seriously, particularly the safety of Aboriginal women, sex workers and women living in poverty,” the letter read.

Under the Commissioner’s ruling, only parties with full standing have the right to cross-examine all inquiry witnesses, while parties with limited standing can cross-examine selected witnesses. The ability and use of cross-examination provides the opportunity for documentary and spoken evidence to be presented to be questioned and challenged to determine accuracy. Effective and informed cross-examination requires the assistance of legal counsel.

Saik’uz First Nation’s Chief, Jackie Thomas, weighed in on the question of the legitimacy and integrity of the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry. “I see it as a one-sided process we’re going through,” says Thomas. “The Union of BC Indian Chiefs and Tribal Councils that I belong to aren’t going to be represented and those are the people I trusted to look after our interests.”

Further challenging the legitimacy of representation at the inquiry, on August 5, 2011, in an open letter to the DTES community by the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre and Feb 14 Women’s Memorial March Committee, these groups strongly object to the Missing Women’s Commission’s latest proposal to retain and fund one or two independent lawyers (amici) to “present the perspectives of the Downtown Eastside community and Aboriginal women.”

“The latest proposal is a further slap in our face, which comes in light of the B.C. government’s decision to shut out participation of DTES, Women’s and Indigenous groups and communities. The purpose of the public inquiry is being whittled away — the adversarial process already makes it highly improbable for vulnerable women to provide their testimonies as they will be subjected to rigorous cross examination by the police’s lawyers. This is highly objectionable as it re-victimizes and traumatizes survivors of violence in an inquiry that is supposed to bring some level of justice for them.”

In an attempt to further pressure the inquiry before its October 2011 start date, the Aboriginal Woman’s Action Network publically released a letter on September 7, 2011, addressed to B.C. Attorney General Shirley Bond. The letter challenged: “Your government should be willing in 2011 to permit a full, public examination of whether, and if so, in what ways, there have been police and Crown failures to protect women and prevent violence against them, and one in which the most marginalized women, and the organizations that represent them, can participate effectively and enjoy the respect and support that they are owed.”

“Canada’s failure to protect Indigenous women is known internationally. In 2008, Canada was internationally criticized by both the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women and in 2009 during the Universal Periodic Review of Canada by the Human Rights Council in reference to noted inadequacies in law and practice with respect to preventing, investigating, prosecuting and remedying violence against women in Canada. While Canada has finally endorsed the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples on November 12, 2010, this declaration is non-binding.”

“Amnesty International (AI) recommends that Canada develop a specific and integrated plan for addressing the particular conditions affecting Aboriginal women including poverty, poor health, inadequate housing, low school-completion rates, low employment rates, low income and high rates of violence.”

AI further stated, “The Canadian government has condemned the violence and promised to take action. But efforts to date have fallen far short of the comprehensive, coordinated response needed to address such serious and pervasive human rights violations.”

The relationship between family and community members and community and Indigenous groups and the B.C. government reflects a larger Canadian trend of ignoring and minimizing the needs of Indigenous women on Turtle Island. The refusal to provide fair compensation for independent, non-judicial groups to participate in the inquiry puts further into question Canada’s commitment to take seriously and provide real solutions to stop violence against Indigenous women. While the Canadian government is isolating itself on the international stage regarding this issue, with the number of groups pulling out of the inquiry, the B.C. government is replicating this pattern of isolation.

Krystalline Kraus

krystalline kraus is an intrepid explorer and reporter from Toronto, Canada. A veteran activist and journalist for rabble.ca, she needs no aviator goggles, gas mask or red cape but proceeds fearlessly...