All it takes is the cover of retired judge Wally Oppal’s 1,448-page report on Vancouver’s “missing women” to let readers know what he’s going to say. We see the image of a woman’s face made up of a cloud of words in English and in the language of the Sto:lo First Nations, words used during the hearings to describe the missing women, words such as “missed, loved, talented, courageous, hopeful, generous, sister, auntie…”
And if the word cloud doesn’t say enough, the title does: Forsaken. Indeed these women, murdered by serial Robert Pickton over a decade-long period, their disappearances ignored by authorities, were most certainly forsaken. And Mr. Oppal gets it.
His report is a tough – as well as comprehensive and compassionate – analysis of how dozens of women disappeared from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside neighbourhood and from other parts of British Columbia’s Lower Mainland to end up on Mr. Pickton’s filthy farm in Port Coquitlam.
So it’s too bad that frequent chanting and loud heckling from a variety of groups interrupted Mr. Oppal’s presentation on Monday. Some family members left the press conference in dismay as a result. To be fair, some of the people who were heckling were sure it was another whitewash that would fail to hold police to account over their neglect of the missing woman.
It’s not. The report does lay blame on the police, both the RCMP and the Vancouver Police. It lists their failures in detail. And it demands remedies that include financial support for the children of the women who died on the farm. In all, Mr. Oppal has made sixty-three recommendations. Predictably, people are already saying they are unrealistic and too expensive – just what people have always said when it comes to repairing the lives of the poor and addicted living in the Downtown Eastside. It is time we acknowledged that this neighbourhood is a running sore that is this beautiful city’s shame, and a place that is especially unkind to native men and women.
But this time, the skeptics were dealing with a man who knew all about racial discrimination. Mr. Oppal is, of course, the first Indo-Canadian judge to be appointed to British Columbia’s Supreme Court as well as the first appointed to the Court of Appeal. Mr. Oppal didn’t let the hecklers bother him; he just waited them out and soon had control of the room.
And this time, a day after Mr. Oppal’s report was released, Vancouver’s chief of police, Jim Chu, apologized to the families of the murdered women. “We should have and could have caught Pickton sooner,” he admitted.
But as some observers have noted, there were others in the crowd listening to Mr. Oppal on Monday who should examine their own responsibilities. The Downtown Eastside has many well-meaning agencies that lobby for their clients and try to look after the hungry and poor and homeless and addicted. But several of these agencies don’t work well together and they don’t see the bigger picture, the bigger needs. It’s all too often about who gets what, not how to help one another. It’s time to stop blaming and bickering and, yes, heckling. It’s time to start fixing this shameful problem.
Journalist Stevie Cameron is the author of two books investigating the Robert Pickton murders, The Pickton File (2007) and On The Farm: Robert William Pickton and the Tragic Story of Vancouver’s Missing Women (2010).