Prostitutes from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside will likely not show up at the provincial inquiry into the missing and murdered women if the B.C. government refuses to fund legal counsel for them, Commissioner Wally Oppal was told Monday.
Sex workers were the targets for murders, sexual violence and other abuses carried out from 1997 to 2002, the time that serial killer Robert Pickton was on the prowl for women in the Downtown Eastside, said Kate Gibson, spokesperson for a coalition of three sex-worker serving organizations, during a special session of the Oppal Inquiry.
The women bring a perspective that is absolutely vital to the inquiry’s work, she said. “Denying funding [for legal counsel for the coalition that represents them] will have the effect of shutting out the exact community of women whose experiences and perspectives are the very reason for this commission of inquiry,” Ms. Gibson said.
“Many of the barriers that prevented marginalized women and in particular women involved in sex work, from coming forward to police between 1997 and 2002 will be replicated in the commission process if vulnerable witnesses are not provided the necessary community and legal supports,” she said.
Mr. Oppal was appointed to look into the circumstances surrounding the police investigation of the missing and murdered women in the Downtown Eastside. The inquiry, appointed last year, is to begin its hearings in October and report its findings by Dec. 31.
Government-funded lawyers will represent the RCMP, the Vancouver Police Department and Crown prosecutors who did not proceed with a charge against Mr. Pickton. The government is also paying for a lawyer to represent 10 victims’ families. Attorney-General Barry Penner has said he does not have money in his budget for groups that speak on behalf of women and aboriginal people.
Mr. Oppal, who had recommended that the government provide funding for the aboriginal and women’s groups, held a special session Monday to assess the impact of the government’s refusal and to review his options.
Several groups said they would have to reassess whether they could participate in the inquiry if funding was not available for legal counsel. Mr. Oppal was encouraged to make a strong second request for funding participants and, failing that, challenge the B.C. government in court.
Craig Jones, a government lawyer representing the Attorney-General, suggested that one of the commission’s lawyers could be assigned to cross-examine witnesses to reflect the interests of the aboriginal and women’s groups.
However, several participants, including Mr. Oppal, were skeptical about whether the commission could represent several diverse interests during the hearings without being in a conflict of interest.
Katherine Hansel, a lawyer for the Native Women’s Association of Canada, said Mr. Jones’s proposal was logically and legalistically impossible.
Earlier, Mr. Oppal heard that Kim Rossmo, a former Vancouver police officer who was expected to be a central witness in the inquiry, may not show up if he does not have government funding.
Mr. Rossmo had recommended in the late 1990s that a task force be formed to investigate whether a serial killer was roaming the Downtown Eastside but his suggestion was rejected by senior management. Mr. Rossmo will consider whether he will participate if he does not have a lawyer who can cross-examine witnesses who have made allegations about him that are not true, the inquiry was told.