The commissioner of the Missing Women's Inquiry, Wally Oppal, took depositions from witnesses at a community forum in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside last week.
Many stood at a microphone to his left at the Jan. 19 event, looking directly at him as they expressed anger, indignation, and deep cynicism about whether the inquiry would bring justice for the 69 women who were murdered or disappeared between 1970 and 2002. Oppal's face remained expressionless as he took notes throughout the proceedings.
The forum was not an official part of the inquiry, Oppal said. The speakers were not under oath, but their presentations would help him establish the focus of the inquiry and guide the selection of witnesses on January 31 and February 1.
The inquiry proper is due to begin next summer. It will investigate the actions of the Vancouver Police Department and the RCMP, who have been accused of gross neglect and incompetency for ignoring the serial disappearances and murders. Police conduct in the disappearance of at least 18 women from northern B.C.'s Highway of Tears will also be investigated.
"We want to know what went wrong and how we can prevent these wrongs in the future," said Oppal.
Squamish Nation Chief Ian Campbell, who presided over the forum at the Japanese Language School in East Vancouver, draped Oppal in a blanket that gave him the right to speak; it appeared to sit heavy on his shoulders.
Oppal was B.C.'s attorney general from 2005 to 2009. He was also appointed to the BC Supreme Court (1985) and to the BC Court of Appeal (2003). Critics say they doubt his impartiality and the sincerity of the inquiry itself.
The first speaker, Vancouver East NDP MP Libby Davies, asked why the inquiry would only examine murders and disappearances that occurred between 1997 and 2002. [Click here to read her presentation in full]
"It's too narrow in its scope of years, which is worrisome as to why. But nevertheless, it's an inquiry," she said.
Davies asked Oppal to "produce a report that cannot be ignored. That is bulletproof, hard-hitting and that will cause shock waves as to what happened and why. Nothing less than that. If it's less, let's just go home and pretend that nothing ever happened."
Oppal also heard from the province's many advocacy and activist groups. Susan Davis is a sex-trade worker and member of the BC Coalition of Experiential Communities, which campaigns for sex workers' rights. In 1990, Robert William Pickton assaulted her in his van. She escaped and ran to the VPD, handing them his licence plate number. They did nothing. Susan Davis blames this complacency on anti-sex-work biases in mainstream support services such as police departments and women's shelters.
"The narrow timeline of this inquiry cannot picture the slow, creeping build-up of biases," she told Oppal.
Bernie Williams represented Walk for Justice, a group of women who walked from B.C. to Ottawa in 2008 to hand Stephen Harper a list of the more than 3,000 women who have disappeared across Canada. Eighty per cent of them are aboriginal, according to Walk for Justice.
In her address to Oppal, Williams stated that law enforcement complacency continues in Vancouver. "Hot capping" -- where a murder is made to look like a drug overdose -- happens all too frequently. Though the police claim that there is no child street prostitution, the DTES's "kiddie stroll" is a tragic reality, said Williams.
A handful of recommendations emerged from the presentations:
• Establish follow-up mechanisms to ensure that police implement the commission's findings;
• Expand the inquiry's timeline to include women who went missing before 1997;
• Pickton, convicted of six of the murders in 2007, did not act alone. Investigate his brother Dave and their Hells Angels buddies;
• Focus on the 69 women who disappeared from the DTES. The Highway of Tears needs its own inquiry;
• Focus on specific police actions in specific cases. Don't be distracted by theoretical debates such as legalizing prostitution;
A group of First Nations drummers led by Chief Williams closed the meeting with the Women's Warrior Song, a battle cry for justice often sung in front of B.C.'s police stations to commemorate missing women.
Helen Polychronakos is a Vancouver-based freelance journalist, editor and teacher. Her blog can be read here.
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