An urgent appeal to Premier Christy Clark to intervene in the Pickton inquiry was shot down almost immediately.
“Let me be clear. We will not be intervening in the work of the commission,” Attorney-General Shirley Bond said Wednesday in an e-mail response to a request for an interview.
Former attorney-general Wally Oppal was appointed in September, 2010 to review the police investigation into Robert Pickton, a serial killer convicted of six murders and believed by police to have killed at least another 27 women. The provincial government has refused to fund legal counsel for several women’s, community and aboriginal groups who say they need lawyers to cross examine witnesses, review more than one-million pages of internal police documents and make submissions to Mr. Oppal.
Mr. Oppal had recommended that the government pick up the legal bills for the groups, adding that he felt their participation in the inquiry was essential. Government-funded lawyers will represent RCMP, the Vancouver Police Department and prosecutors in the attorney-general’s office. The B.C. government has agreed to provide funding for victims’ families.
Seventeen families of victims and 30 women’s, community and aboriginal groups issued an open letter earlier Wednesday, urging Ms. Clark to intervene in what they describe as a broken process. They asked her to appoint a senior official who would meet with them in hopes of finding ways to ensure that they can participate in the hearings.
The groups set Wednesday as a deadline for a response, raising speculation that, if their concerns cannot be addressed, none of the groups will show up when the hearings begin the following week.
The commission of inquiry is “in serious jeopardy,” they stated. Those who are intended to benefit from the inquiry have been made to feel their participation is not needed, or even particularly desired, the open letter stated.
Their concerns go beyond funding for lawyers, the letter stated. They are asking that “support” be provided for women with information critical to the inquiry and that the hearings offer “a fair and safe opportunity” for those with evidence to share their information with Mr. Oppal. In internal correspondence obtained by The Globe and Mail, Mr. Oppal has been asked to ensure that vulnerable women can testify anonymously and without being cross-examined on what they say.
Ms. Bond did not wait for next Wednesday to respond. She said funding legal counsel for the families of the murdered and missing women has been a priority for the government.
The government changed the mandate of the commission to include a less formal portion where participants would not need legal counsel, she said. The commission also recently added four independent lawyers, two retained pro bono, who will represent certain participant groups. These lawyers are in addition to the commission’s several previously retained lawyers.
Commission counsel Art Vertlieb has said the commission is satisfied its mandate can be fulfilled with the present configuration of participants, Ms. Bond added.