The families of Robert Pickton’s victims, many of whom never saw the serial killer stand trial for the murders of their sisters, mothers and grandmothers, entered the public inquiry into the case skeptical but nonetheless hoping it would bring them answers.
More than seven months later, as the hearings draw to a close, those same families are denouncing the inquiry as a complete failure that will be unable to tell them or the public why Mr. Pickton was able to murder impoverished sex workers with impunity for so many years.
“This commission has failed to uncover the true reasons why this enormous tragedy was allowed to happen and exactly how it was that the criminal justice system utterly failed these women and their families,” Cameron Ward, who represents the families of more than two dozen missing and murdered women, told the inquiry during his final submissions Monday.
“My clients are disappointed, discouraged and, most of all, angry at the way this commission has unfolded. They feel this commission has perpetuated the attitude of indifference and disrespect that they themselves first experienced when they reported their loved ones missing.”
Mr. Ward had an hour to sum up more than half a year of testimony as the inquiry entered its final week, and he used much of that time to list off what he argued were the failures of the process and of commissioner Wally Oppal.
Mr. Ward said Mr. Oppal ceded to an unfair deadline imposed by the provincial government, rushing through witnesses and skipping others, including numerous police officers who had yet to talk about their role in the investigations of Mr. Pickton and missing women in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
At the same time, Mr. Oppal relied too heavily on evidence from the Vancouver police and the RCMP, Mr. Ward said, taking their own internal reviews of the Pickton case at face value and allowing them to withhold hundreds of thousands of documents.
“From the perspectives of my clients, this public inquiry has not nearly finished its work,” said Mr. Ward.
“This could be called the missing-evidence inquiry.”
Outside the inquiry, Mr. Ward’s clients could barely contain their distaste for the inquiry and for Mr. Oppal, a former judge and one-time Liberal attorney-general.
“I’m so pissed off, this is totally unfair,” said Cynthia Cardinal, whose sister Georgina Papin was among the women Mr. Pickton was convicted of killing.
“This is an injustice.”
The families have not forgotten that it was Mr. Oppal who, as attorney-general, broke the news in 2008 that Mr. Pickton may not stand trial for 20 outstanding murder charges.
By then, Mr. Pickton had already been convicted of six counts of second-degree murder and prosecutors were waiting to deal with an additional 20 charges until after his appeals had run out. At the time, Mr. Oppal said if the convictions were upheld, a second trial wouldn’t be in the public interest.
The Supreme Court of Canada upheld Mr. Pickton’s convictions in the summer of 2010, and the remaining charges were stayed. One of those charges involved Cara Ellis, whose DNA was found on Mr. Pickton’s property after his arrest.
“I’ve sat here every day and watched this sham of justice,” said Ms. Ellis’s sister-in-law, Lori-Ann Ellis.
“When they stayed the 20 charges on our girls, we were angry and disappointed that these girls would never see their day in court,” she continued, through tears. “We sat every day of this inquiry and we watched Mr. Oppal kick our girls.”
The inquiry began last October and has heard from dozens of witnesses, including current and former police officers, relatives of the missing women, advocates and service providers in the Downtown Eastside and academics.
Despite his complaints, Mr. Ward said the inquiry’s evidence clearly shows police were negligent in failing to investigate reports of missing women and narrowing in on Mr. Pickton as a suspect.
Mr. Ward argued a police culture of disdain toward sex workers was largely to blame.
He cited testimony that officers within the Vancouver police and the RCMP had information as early as 1998 implicating Mr. Pickton in the deaths of sex workers, but neither force did enough to properly investigate.
Family members complained they were brushed off and treated poorly when they attempted to report the women missing, and officers and civilian staff, particularly within the Vancouver Police Department, were accused of making sexist and racist comments.
“The [Vancouver Police] Department’s treatment of the issue has to be chalked up to the police culture,” said Mr. Ward.
“In that day, the VPD, especially the male members of the force, were indifferent to the plight of these women.”
Closing submissions from various participants, including the Vancouver police and the RCMP, are scheduled to wrap up on Wednesday.
After that Mr. Oppal has until Oct. 31 to produce a report that will include recommendations to prevent a similar tragedy in the future. Last week, Mr. Oppal received a four-month extension to write his report, which was previously due on June 30.
Mr. Pickton was arrested in February, 2002 and convicted in December, 2007 of the six counts of second-degree murder.
The remains or DNA of 33 women were found on his farm. He once told an undercover police officer that he killed 49.