Missing Women Commissioner Wally Oppal is urging all sides in the horrific Pickton murder case to set aside their differences and work together to combat ongoing problems of poverty and the status of aboriginal people in Canada.
In an interview ahead of Monday’s long-awaited release of his report into authorities’ handling of the disappearance of scores of women from the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, the former attorney-general indicated those social factors were at the root of lengthy indifference by police and others to the investigation.
“The term may be harsh, but they were seen as nobodies,” an emotional Mr. Oppal said of the victims, most of whom were drug-addicted prostitutes from the city’s poorest streets. “They were seen as poor and vulnerable … throwaways.
“In fact, they were like anyone else. They were mothers. They were sisters,” he said.
Robert Pickton, considered the worst serial killer in Canadian history, was eventually convicted and sentenced to life in 2007 for murdering six of the missing women. Traces of DNA linked to 27 others were found on his notorious pig farm in Port Coquitlam, and he once claimed to have killed 49 women. More than a third of his victims were aboriginal.
Mr. Oppal’s exhaustive report is expected to come down hard on police, who have acknowledged grievous errors in their response to the missing women, allowing Mr. Pickton to continue his murderous spree, until his arrest in February, 2002. Vancouver police stated categorically in 1998 that they did not believe a serial killer was afoot in the Downtown Eastside and provided few resources for investigators. Tips about Mr. Pickton were not followed up seriously.
But the two-year inquiry has been dogged by controversy. Many advocacy groups withdrew from the process, critical that police had lawyers while they were denied government funding.
They also complained the inquiry’s terms of reference were too narrow, focused on police matters rather than broader issues, such as the plight of sex-trade workers.
Nevertheless, Mr. Oppal reached out to them.
“Here we are in 2012, and we as a society have collectively allowed poverty to exist, especially in aboriginal communities,” he said. “Even our detractors are there because they believe in the cause of the women, the poor. Whatever political differences there were about the inquiry really have to be set aside for the greater good. The community has to come together.”
The heartbreak of the families left behind by Mr. Pickton’s victims had a profound impact on the inquiry, Mr. Oppal said. He put up a poster of the missing women at home as a constant reminder of the tragedy. “We’re all human,” he said.
Ernie Crey’s sister, Dawn, was one of the women whose DNA was found on Mr. Pickton’s farm.
Initially, Mr. Crey shared criticism of the inquiry. However, he subsequently accepted the reality of the situation, worked with other families, and testified.
He says he is hopeful Mr. Oppal’s findings and recommendations will be strong enough to ensure there is no repeat of the circumstances that allowed a serial killer such as Mr. Pickton to go unapprehended for so long.
“I want to see what sort of justice can be salvaged from all of this for my sister, and the other missing women. That’s what kept me in there.”
Besides, Mr. Crey said, he doesn’t believe Dawn would have wanted him to be “yelling and jumping up and down. I think she would have wanted me to hang on to my dignity, and advocate quietly.”
Over the years, the pain of losing his sister has eased, but it’s far from gone.
“This was my baby sister. I changed her diapers. I fed her pablum. So the loss was profound, for me and everyone in our family,” Mr. Crey said.
“I can’t get this image out of my mind, of the terrible fate my sister must have met...” His voice broke.
Families of the missing women will receive the report four hours before it is made public. Counselling will be provided by the province for family members who require it.