An aboriginal group that was close to some of the women who were murdered by serial killer Robert Pickton has withdrawn from participating in the Missing Women Inquiry.
The Native Courtworker and Counselling Association of B.C. does not have the resources to participate in the inquiry without financial support from the provincial government, association president Hugh Braker said Sunday.
The inquiry is to hold hearings beginning in October into the police investigation of more than 60 murdered and missing women from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and why Mr. Pickton was not arrested years earlier than he was. At issue is whether aboriginal and women’s groups will have their own lawyers to cross-examine police witnesses and review internal police documents at the inquiry.
The B.C. government on Friday turned down an impassioned plea by Commissioner Wally Oppal to pay for lawyers for the aboriginal and women’s groups. Mr. Oppal told the government that the groups could not participate in the hearings in a meaningful way without funding. Even the Vancouver police recognize the need for the groups to be represented by legal counsel, Mr. Oppal told the government.
Deputy Attorney-General David Loukidelis, in a letter on behalf of Attorney-General Barry Penner, replied that Mr. Oppal did not have the authority to recommend funding for the groups and, even if he did, the government was not required to accept his recommendation.
Mr. Loukidelis stated that the government does not have the financial resources to fund the women’s and aboriginal groups. Commission counsel could ensure that relevant evidence is brought out, he wrote.
Mr. Braker said the native court workers provided counselling and referral services to some of the women who went missing and were later murdered by Mr. Pickton. The group also helped women who have gone missing and were never found, he said.
“We have some ideas about what police should have been doing and were not doing, about how things can be improved,” Mr. Braker said. Without some government support, the association will be unable to pull together a submission to the inquiry. “That is not going to be done,” he said.
Mr. Braker said he was not surprised by the government’s refusal to fund groups at the centre of the inquiry. The authorities refused to admit a problem existed when the women started to go missing, he said. They refused for a long time to acknowledge a serial killer was murdering women, and even after Mr. Pickton, they would not appoint an inquiry to find out what went wrong, he said. “This government has been dragging its heels on this issue from the beginning,” he said.
Angela Marie MacDougall, spokesperson for the February 14 Women’s Memorial March Committee, said the provincial government was trying to silence their voice at the inquiry.
“This provincial government has in so many ways let us know that women’s voices are not welcome,” she said. “In the absence of our voices, we have the police exclusively speaking to the experiences of the women that continue to live with these issues we talk about and need to be addressed in the inquiry.”
The group has not yet discussed whether it can still participate in the inquiry without legal representation, she said.
Mr. Oppal decided he would not comment further on the funding issue, Chris Freimond, an inquiry spokesman, said in an interview.
Mr. Oppal is continuing to work toward the start of the hearings in October, Mr. Freimond said. “He feels he has done what he could to convince the government to fund legal representation for the groups whose participation is important to the work of the inquiry,” Mr. Freimond said.
The commission will continue with the hearings regardless of whether aboriginal and women’s groups participate. “It is not going to stop the commission from continuing to do its work,” Mr. Freimond said.