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The Silence Was Deafening

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February 4, 2011

The Silence Was Deafening

BC's Missing Women Commission of Inquiry hears from Downtown East Side

by Sandra Cuffe

Kelly White presents Commissioner Wally Oppal with a bundle at the Community Engagement Forum for the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry in Vancouver. The inquiry's process, content and naming of Oppal as Commissioner were subject to scrutiny by those who for the past 30 years have been demanding an inquiry into Canada's missing and murdered women. Photo: Tami Starlight

VANCOUVER—Passionate criticism and painful stories rang out at two Community Engagement Forums held at the end of January in Vancouver and Prince George, BC, leading up to this year's Missing Women Commission of Inquiry. Indigenous women spoke up to demand justice for their beloved family members and friends who have been disappeared or murdered.

More than 100 people gathered in a large hall at the Japanese Language School in Vancouver's Downtown East Side (DTES) on January 19, 2011. The Commission's process, content and the naming of Wally Oppal as Commissioner were subject to passionate criticism and scrutiny by those who have been demanding justice for their relatives, friends and colleagues for over 30 years.

"Mr. Oppal, this has been a long journey for a lot of us women," said Walk4Justice co-founder Bernie Williams.

The Commission was set in motion in September 2010 by an Order in Council by the BC Lieutenant Governor in Council. The terms of reference instruct the Commission to inquire into the investigations by police forces into the disappearances of women from the DTES between certain dates, inquire into the Criminal Justice Branch's 1998 stay of proceedings on charges against Robert Pickton, recommend changes concerning investigations into cases of missing women and suspected multiple homicides in BC and recommend changes concerning homicide investigations and inter-agency co-operation.

"Why did it take 69 women [in BC], and over 4,000 women nationally [for this to get started]?" asked Williams.

Sold into the sex trade in Prince Rupert as a child, Williams' mother was murdered in 1977. Two of her older sisters were murdered in the 1980s. Williams and other relatives of missing and murdered women out west and across the country have been organizing for decades, demanding justice and, among other things, a public inquiry concerning all missing and murdered women since the 1970s.

"I don't trust this whole Commission. I don't trust it," added Williams, to loud applause by those in attendance.

Many women regretted the choice of date and time for the community engagement forum. It was originally postponed, but then scheduled for one of the worst days possible: Wednesday, January 19, 2011 was a welfare payment day, complicating many local residents' and others' availability to participate.

The terms of reference of the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry were repeatedly called into question.

The inquiry into the way investigations of disappearances of women in the DTES were handled by police forces deals with investigations specifically between January 23, 1997 and February 5, 2002. This narrow window excludes dozens of women who have been murdered or gone missing both before and after the chosen dates. Furthermore, the infamous Highway of Tears—Highway 16 running east-west in northern BC—is not mentioned by name in the terms of reference, despite the fact that young women, almost all of them First Nations, have been going missing along that highway for decades.

"I started a movement in northern BC. My niece went missing on the Highway of Tears," began Walk4Justice co-founder Gladys Radek.

"Our people, our families, they need to know what happened," said Radek, echoing the voices of so many relatives of missing and murdered women. "The system is failing."

"I got home at 1:30 am last night and I checked my email, and there was a 'missing' poster. That missing poster was the mother of someone who went missing on the Highway of Tears five years ago," she continued, choking back tears.

Radek went to school with Maggie Layton, the woman whose photograph appeared on the missing poster in question. The two women walked alongside each other during a previous Walk4Justice—Layton, to demand justice for her missing daughter, and Radek, for her niece Tamara Chipman, and for all of the missing women and their families.

More than 100 people attended the Community Engagement Forum in Vancouver's Downtown East Side. One hundred people also attended the forum in Prince George, BC. Photo: Tami Starlight

At the Community Engagement Forum in Prince George on January 21, 100 people gathered to speak out about their experiences, stories and their missing and murdered daughters, sisters, mothers, nieces and others. The Commission, and particularly Oppal, was urged to visit the communities along the Highway of Tears. A few speakers at the Vancouver forum echoed the request for the series of cases in northern BC to be dealt with thoroughly, and not simply as an aside to the inquiry into what occurred in the DTES.

"The women of the Highway of Tears need their own inquiry," asserted Alice Kendall of the DTES Women's Centre.

"There is poverty across Canada. There is racism across Canada," she said, but adding that "something happened in this specific neighbourhood [the DTES]."

In large part, the Commission of Inquiry arose out of the explosion of media attention concerning missing and murdered women during Robert Pickton's arrest, the high-profile forensic investigation of his pig farm in Port Coquitlam and his subsequent trial and conviction for the murders of six women. As does the Inquiry, media attention focused on a few sensational cases and issues, ignoring the vast majority of others.

The facts are undeniable. The overwhelming majority of missing and murdered women in BC are Indigenous women. As has often been the case with media coverage and investigations, the terms of reference offer no mention, analysis or instructions reflecting that reality.

With the exception of the sensationalist coverage of the Pickton case, the near complete failure of the police, media and government to take reports of missing and murdered women seriously, or to do anything about them, has continued for decades. Many women denounced the institutional racism of police forces and other institutions, which have resulted in the abuse and derision of families who report their daughters, mothers, sisters and others missing.

"The silence was definitely deafening. We could hear it," said Dianne George.

"How did the Commission of Inquiry come up with the dates of January 23, 1997 and February 5, 2002?" she asked.

The terms of reference arise from the principal goal of the Commission of Inquiry: to recommend changes to improve the investigations of police forces and the judicial system, as well as inter-institutional co-operation in the future. It reflects the Pickton case, but excludes many other women, families, perpetrators and systemic problems. The Missing Women Commission of Inquiry has in fact been dubbed the "Pickton Inquiry" by the media.

Several women came forward at the Community Engagement Forum to speak about their own experiences with Robert Pickton and other suspected perpetrators. They told harrowing stories of their interactions with Pickton and others, their sisters' and friends' visits to the infamous pig farm, and their treatment by the police when they came forward.

"I was treated as though I was making stuff up, as though I was delusional," recalled Terry Williams, adding that one police officer once told her that if she kept reporting information, she would be committed to a psychiatric institution.

The stories shared included experiences and incredibly detailed information, including the license plate of the van used by Pickton and others to abduct women, an Oregon license plate of another van seen abducting women and the location of Pickton's pig farm. Almost invariably, the response women and family members received echoed a comment made by Williams: when she had a license plate number of a van and a description of the man that she had seen abducting a woman from the DTES, "The cops would not take the information."

The history and experiences do not all relate to Robert Pickton. They do not all relate to the years between 1997 and 2002. Most of the women who spoke at the Community Engagement Forum expressed their frustration or anger at the exclusion of so many missing and murdered women, but also at their own exclusion from the process itself.

"What I think everyone here is saying is that those terms of reference are too narrow," reiterated Beverley Jacobs, emphasizing that she was not speaking as legal counsel for the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs (UBCIC), but as an Aboriginal woman.

"You have the authority, Commissioner Oppal, to change...those terms of reference," added Jacobs.

"We understand the dissatisfaction that has been shown here today," said Commissioner Wally Oppal, speaking on behalf of the Commission of Inquiry. "We want to see constructive changes made."

As the Community Engagement Forum came to a close, it was clear that relatives, friends, colleagues and neighbours of the missing and murdered women in Vancouver's Downtown East Side have been proposing constructive changes for years. Beyond their critiques and proposals for the official Commission of Inquiry, which is set to begin within a few months, they continue to organize and mobilize in the DTES, in northern BC and across the country.

The 20th annual Women's Memorial March for Missing and Murdered Women will be held again this year on February 14, 2011—Valentine's Day—in Vancouver's Downtown East Side. Everyone, of any gender, is invited to gather at the Carnegie Community Centre Theatre at Main and Hastings at 12:00pm, where relatives of missing and murdered will speak before the march begins at 1:00 pm. Two weeks of commemorative events began last week, on January 30, 2011.

Other Women's Memorial Marches, Sisters in Spirit vigils and rallies for justice will take place on February 14 in Edmonton, Winnipeg, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and dozens of other communities across the country.

Relatives and supporters will be joining the Walk4Justice once again this summer, walking across Canada to honour the missing and murdered Indigenous women from coast to coast, to raise awareness, and to demand justice. The Walk4Justice will reach Ottawa on September 19, 2011.

Sandra Cuffe is a contributing member of the Vancouver Media Co-op and based in Vancouver, in unceded Coast Salish territory. This article was originally published by the Vancouver Media Co-op.

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re: the Silence was Deafening

In the mid-to-late '90s, I sometimes appeared on a panel on a Vision-TV current affairs show hosted by Rita Deverell. For one segment, the panelists were expected to bring in an important or interesting story that we thought the news media had ignored or overlooked. I brought in a handful of clippings and printouts of news stories mostly from Vancouver. They were short, easily overlooked, often two or three short sentences in all. They came from wire services or newspapers, dailies, weeklies, alternatives.

The subject: missing Aboriginal women in the Vancouver area.

I had no idea at the time. Just a feeling that something wasn't right.

wow, thanks for commenting...

Hi Shmohawk,

Thanks so much for the insight. Do you happen to still have the clippings? I want to do some digging over the next while, leading up the start of the actual Commission hearings, and I have been thinking about trying to do some kind of overview or analysis of media coverage over the years. Most of what I have seen parallels the terms of reference for the Commission of Inquiry - both this one, another recent BC inquiry into the death of homeless Mikmaq Vancouver resident Frank Paul during/after police custody, and possibly others. They all look at what has been going on as a compilation of isolated incidents, murders, and/or serial killings. A such, even major patterns staring them in the face - poverty, systemic police abuse against Indigenous people and women in general - are nicely compartmentalized as secondary facts of little importance. Anyways, wire reports and longer newspaper articles are easier to search in all kinds of databases and online and that often really short clippings won't be found anywhere except for in the actual print versions. I love libraries, but if you still have those clippings, I'd love to see them, even just to get another idea of what to look for and how to go about searching.

Love the blog, by the way. I have to admit, there were too many quasi-identifying clues not to make me curious, so I did venture off on a little roundabout tangential search that eventually led me back to where I started. I was a little disappointed that apparently my brief detective work was totally unnecessary, but it was still fun. Your aunt's petunia's indeed.


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