Wally Oppal says the scores of women missing and presumed murdered by Robert Pickton and others in the Vancouver area were doubly forsaken – by society and by police. In fact, they were triply forsaken, though Mr. Oppal’s terms of reference did not allow him to say so. The law itself forsook many of them, by criminalizing them for selling sex and driving them to the extreme margins.
The long-term value of Mr. Oppal’s report, even apart from its many useful recommendations, may be in indirectly demolishing the federal government’s case for maintaining prostitution laws as they are. A challenge to those laws is currently before the Supreme Court of Canada. The evidence of marginalization and vulnerability compiled in the 1,448 pages of Mr. Oppal’s inquiry report is beyond doubt. By worsening the dangers, the criminal law is, in effect, a help to serial killers such as Mr. Pickton.
Robert Pickton was in plain sight, but the prostitutes were invisible; the criminalizing of bawdy houses (along with the criminalizing of street solicitation, an element of the law we support) and the illegality of hiring a bodyguard left them physically at risk and with little ability to call on police protection. “I cannot ignore the reality that this legal regime played an important role in shaping the relationship between the police and women in the [Downtown Eastside], potentially affecting the police investigations into the women’s disappearances,” Mr. Oppal writes.
Mr. Oppal is a former appeal court judge and a former British Columbia attorney general; he sets out convincingly how laws and policing work, or fail to work. One woman, known in the report as “Ms. Anderson,” did not disappear; she survived a knife attack, and reported it to police. This was in 1997, and the RCMP believed her completely, though their investigation was clumsy – an officer interviewed her just once, and didn’t follow up leads suggesting that Mr. Pickton had attacked others. A charge of attempted murder was laid, but Crown attorney Randi Connor stayed the charge, finding that Ms. Anderson, because of her drug addictions, was a shaky witness. But as Mr. Oppal documents, Ms. Connor interviewed her only once, found her incoherent and nodding off and didn’t offer to get her help for her addictions. Nineteen more women are believed to have been murdered before Mr. Pickton was finally arrested in 2002.
The Oppal report is a hair-raising examination of how marginalization undermines equality before the law, including the right to the law’s protection. The report is a death knell for prostitution laws in their current form.