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VANCOUVER—Just weeks before the BC Missing Women Commission of Inquiry began, concerns and questions continued to be raised by the groups representing Aboriginal, women’s and sex-trade workers groups. More are walking away from what appears to be a crumbling process.
"We are calling for a national inquiry," says Jeannette Corbiere Lavell, president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC). "This is a human rights violation: we are being denied the basic right to participate in a decision-making process that affects us,” she said. NWAC pulled out of the commission when it was announced that none of the organizations granted standing—participation—at the inquiry would be afforded legal representation.
“Canada is supposed to be leading the way for upholding rights—we should be able to access at least one of these rights, and be able to represent ourselves,” Lavell said in a telephone interview. “There are over 600 missing and murdered Aboriginal women and as Aboriginal women, we know the best way to address this—what works for us and what doesn’t.”
The commission was called on September 27, 2010, to investigate police handling of the murders committed by serial killer Robert Pickton. Just a month before the commission was set to begin, many observers watched in disbelief as the inquiry appeared to fall apart.
“On the tenth [of August], we pulled out because we felt like the commission had reached a point where it no longer represented a meaningful exercise,” West Coast Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF) Executive Director Kasari Govender told The Dominion. West Coast LEAF is a non-profit group that was granted standing at the commission with coalition partner Ending Violence Association of BC. “With its denial to fund legal counsel to Aboriginal and community groups we feel it greatly compromises the inquiry and many groups are feeling pushed out,” she said.
Eight of the groups granted standing at the commission withdrew from the proceedings after the BC government announced this summer that it cannot afford to pay the legal fees for groups participating in the Pickton inquest. The relatives of the serial killer's victims, however, will be provided funding for legal counsel, albeit for one lawyer for all 10 families.
This is one of many issues that led some people to question whether the commission will get to the bottom of a serious question: why and how did a serial killer manage to operate freely without fear of repercussions for over a decade?
The Missing Women Investigation Review, issued by the Vancouver Police Department in August 2010, established that police inaction over the colossal number of reports of missing women from Vancouver’s Downtown East Side (DTES) warranted a rigorous investigation. It details eight key findings among the reasons for the failed investigation, including management, leadership, jurisdiction and lack of resources, training and analysis.
The review emphasizes that the VPD “did not cause the failure of the investigation into Pickton because the RCMP had responsibility for that investigation.” According to the review, the RCMP abandoned the investigation over which they asserted authority in 1999.
The cracks that spurred the lapsed investigation, however, appeared much earlier.
In 1990, residents of Vancouver's DTES alerted Ernie Crey to the disappearances of women from the neighbourhood. At the time, Crey was the acting-president of the United Native Nations, then located at 108 Blood Alley in the DTES. Crey was the first high-profile Aboriginal leader to speak out when women began vanishing, and he became a strong voice for victims' families after his sister—Dawn Crey—disappeared in November 2000.
“Folks were coming up and saying that women who live in the neighbourhood—women in the sex trade, women who were dependent on drugs, and women who were mentally ill—were disappearing,” Crey told The Dominion.
According to Crey, a police liaison provided the logic behind the mystery: the women were simply part of a transient population—one day in Calgary, the next in Victoria, on a bus to Vancouver the following. Regardless of the theory, inside the cop shop an officer was also raising suspicions about a serial killer.
One of the few PhD-educated police in the force, Kim Rossmo, also a criminologist, produced a sophisticated geographic profiling formula to predict where a serial criminal lives. However, in a paradoxical move, adding to the long list of setbacks, at the same time Rossmo brought forward his concerns about a potential serial killer at work, he was pushed from the force. While he wasn't officially released because of the Pickton case, resentment over Rossmo's quick rise through the ranks led to resentment among higher-ups, according to a former police colleague, and likely was a reason for his warnings being ignored.
The evidence was clear, but few seemed to take the disappearances of the women, many of whom were Aboriginal, seriously.
“It’s not just about the police; it's a systemic issue, with racism and sex-discrimination at the forefront,” Lavell told The Dominion. “It’s about the refusal of the police, the justice department, the courts, the media and the public to acknowledge how the most vulnerable members of our society—impoverished Aboriginal women—are being abused and exposed to gruesome levels of violence,” she said.
When Pickton was finally arrested, the monster jigsaw puzzle came together and the picture seemed complete—except for one piece.
“We already had...demanded a full inquiry into how police undertook the investigation,” Ernie Crey remembers. “At that point it was our idea to ensure the inquiry’s scope was broad—not just focusing on the police inaction, but to look at other issues,” he said.
The judicial inquiry will delve into Robert Pickton’s horrific crimes: the murders of 33 women in five years, all coming from the DTES. It will also press on why, in 1998, the attorney general's office stayed attempted-murder charges against him. Pickton bragged to an undercover cell-mate of killing 49 women.
Dawn Crey was one of the 30 women whose DNA was found at the killer’s pig farm. Pickton was not convicted for her murder, nor for the killing of 20 others whose DNA was also found at the slaughter warehouse. The decision to stay the 20 remaining murder charges after Pickton was convicted on six counts of murder in 2007 came from Attorney General Wally Oppal. He claimed there was little to gain since Pickton was already serving the maximum sentence under Canadian jurisprudence. The former judge also stated publicly during his tenure as Attorney General that he saw no need for an inquiry.
In a surprising—and criticized—turn of events, Oppal (who was unseated in the 2009 provincial election) was eventually appointed to spearhead the examination of how 66 women disappeared from a small area without police taking heed.
“Some people objected [to Oppal's appointment],” said Crey. “I didn’t initially, yet when I observed so much opposition from community and families, well I didn’t strenuously oppose; but if Oppal’s appointment carried so much suspicion and doubts then the only smart thing that could happen is if he decided to step down.”
Oppal has since changed his tune, jumping the proverbial fence and leaving some people questioning his impartiality—this time on the side of the women.
“It would be the height of unfairness to require unrepresented individuals to cross-examine police who are represented by highly qualified counsel,” Oppal wrote in an eight-page letter to then-Attorney General Barry Penner, dated June 27. In it he urged Penner to fund the groups representing the issues and needs of the missing and murdered women.
The provincial and federal governments are providing funding for the one lawyer for the Attorney General of BC, three lawyers for the Department of Justice Canada (RCMP), nine lawyers for the commission counsel, two lawyers for the Vancouver Police Department, one lawyer for Rossmo (former VPD), two lawyers for the Criminal Justice Branch (prosecutors), and one lawyer for the Vancouver Police Union— 19 legal representatives in total for the justice system representatives.
One lawyer is provided to represent a fraction of the families of the missing and murdered women represented at the commission; no funding will be made available to the Aboriginal, sex-trade and women’s groups—many of which knew the women intimately.
“We were caught off guard and insulted when we were informed that there could be only one independent counsel to ask questions on behalf of all the families. To us it appears discriminatory and it boils down to the fact that racism and sexism continue to lead the investigation,” said Lavell.
David Eby of the BC Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) is troubled by the lack of parity he sees at the commission.
“The government’s decision means some of the best lawyers in Vancouver will be working on a limitless retainer to destroy the credibility of Aboriginal women, sex trade workers and other vulnerable witnesses if they dare criticize the police, and these witnesses won’t have their own lawyers to defend them,” said Eby in a telephone conversation with The Dominion. “It’s outrageous.”
On August 18, Barry Penner announced his resignation as Attorney General. Prior to his departure, he gave a statement to The Dominion. in an email exchange.
“These continue to be challenging economic times, and there are limits to how many millions of taxpayer dollars we can provide to lawyers representing advocacy groups. Funding lawyers for all the participants would add an additional 12 legal teams, effectively tripling the number of taxpayer funded lawyers at the inquiry,” Penner wrote.
On September 20, Pivot Legal Society also pulled out of the inquiry, the ninth group to do so.
On his blog, Eby wrote, “In the big picture, setting aside the petty fault-finding exercise, this commission is supposed to be about restoring the faith of BC's Indigenous populations who live on- and off-reserve, restoring the faith of BC's marginalized populations including those with addictions and those who are homeless or otherwise on the fringes, and restoring the faith of the population at large that might be on the edge, that if you go missing the police will look for you as aggressively as they look for anybody else.”
According to NWAC, a national inquiry can effectively examine the violence against Aboriginal women and girls, with full participation of Aboriginal women, including those groups whose expertise and knowledge can assist its deliberations. “If a national inquiry is not feasible, then we will have to take it to the next level —an international human rights case," said NWAC president Lavell.
“In cases that involve the ongoing genocide of our people, it’s so crucial. I can’t wait another one or two years to watch more women go—this summer alone, 30 women have been reported as missing or murdered,” she said.
“As Aboriginal women we have the role for leading the next generation, every woman and every girl is our future as Native people and this is why the impact is so critical.”
The commission hearings began in Vancouver on October 11.
Angela Sterritt is a writer, visual artist and broadcast and television journalist based out of Vancouver. She is a proud member of the Gitxsan Nation.
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.