A British Columbia inquiry into the mishandling of the Robert Pickton police investigation is scheduled to begin in October of this year. Major concern has arisen from groups shut out of the inquiry for lack of government funding to participate.
The government inquiry was called to examine why police failed to catch serial killer Robert Pickton as he murdered sex workers and others from the Downtown Eastside, including many women who were First Nations. Pickton later confessed to killing 49 women abducted from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
On February 5, 2002, police executed a search warrant for illegal firearms at the property owned by Pickton and his three siblings. He was taken into custody and police then obtained a second court order to search the farm as part of the BC Missing Women Investigation, when personal items belonging to one of the missing women were found.
The BC Missing Women Investigation is an ongoing criminal investigation into the disappearance of at least 60 women from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside from the early 1980s through 2002. The investigation is headed by a task force of members from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and the Vancouver Police Department.
In December 2007, Pickton was convicted of second-degree murder of six women sentenced to life in prison, with no possibility of parole for 25 years. Vancouver Police Deputy Chief Doug LePard apologized for the department’s failure to catch Pickton sooner, admitting mistakes were made.
This admission, and pressure from those impacted by the Pickton murders including family members and the Downtown Eastside community, prompted the inquiry, led by Commissioner Oppal.
For participants in the upcoming inquiry, funding for legal council independent from the justice system has been capped at one lawyer representing the families. Thirteen groups who were granted standing at the inquiry to make presentations have been denied funding to participate in a decision by the B.C. government.
The B.C. government had stated as per funding to participants in the Pickton inquiry that it will only pay the legal bills for the families of Pickton’s victims, 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. and WISH. These non-profit organizations claim they can’t afford to take part in the Pickton inquiry without financial assistance from the provincial government.
It should be noted that Commissioner Oppal had previously asked the government for additional funding for additional groups in May of this year and again earlier this month in a strongly-worded letter to the provincial government, stating that expecting non-profit groups to pay their own way while agencies such as the RCMP and Vancouver police will all have government-funded lawyers was the “height of unfairness.”
Native Woman’s Association of Canada (NWAC) president Jeannette Corbiere Lavell commented on the government’s decision regarding funding: “The Commissioner made it very clear that he considered our participation throughout the hearing process to be vital to a fair and full examination of the issues. I am deeply disappointed that we are unable to bring forward the voices and concerns of Aboriginal women and girls to this inquiry as we had planned.”
B.C. Civil Liberties Association executive director David Eby said the government should be able to come up with the funds. Eby said the groups are worried their witnesses will not have the support they need to take questions from lawyers representing police. Eby said his group has not yet made a decision but rather will wait and see what other groups decide.
“We’re not going to participate if groups representing sex-trade workers and other marginalized populations like Aboriginal people aren’t able to participate in their own inquiry.”
In response to being shut out of the Pickton inquiry, on July 28, 2011 NWAC has once again called for a National Inquiry on Missing and Murdered Indigenous women and girls.
“The Government of British Columbia has shut us out of the British Columbia Missing Women Commission of Inquiry,” NWAC president Corbiere Lavell said in a press release, “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.”
The Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) is founded on the collective goal to enhance, promote, and foster the social, economic, cultural and political well-being of First Nations and Métis women within First Nation, Métis and Canadian societies. As a national organization representing Aboriginal women since 1974, NWAC’s mandate is to achieve equality for all Aboriginal women in Canada.