A year after his report detailing the disturbing conditions responsible for the disappearance and murder of dozens of women in the Downtown Eastside, retired judge Wally Oppal says little has changed in the troubled Vancouver neighbourhood.
The women who walk the streets alone at night remain as vulnerable as ever.
“We keep talking about this city being the greatest in the world and how beautiful it is, but can we legitimately say that when we have an eyesore like the Downtown Eastside?” Mr. Oppal said in an interview.
Author of Forsaken: The Report of the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry, Mr. Oppal said that other than some new social housing, not much about the notorious district is different than it was when women in the area started disappearing 30 years ago.
“And if you have that kind of environment, you know these women are vulnerable to predators. It’s a breeding ground for the Robert Picktons of the world.”
And remains so, he acknowledges.
Mr. Oppal made 65 recommendations after spending nearly two years looking into the tragic circumstances that surrounded the lives of more than 60 women, many aboriginal, who disappeared in the 1980s and 1990s. At least 26 died at the hands of notorious mass-murderer Robert Pickton.
The five-volume report slammed police for sloppy, incompetent work and drew attention to the callous public indifference toward the missing women themselves. Had they been from better addresses, the former B.C. attorney-general said, there would have been instant outrage and frantic calls to apprehend the killer.
Since that time, the provincial government has failed to act on the majority of the report’s proposals. The government says it has begun to make progress on 28 of them and considers three fully implemented, including funding of a drop-in centre for sex workers. The Vancouver Police Department has also implemented the three recommendations in the report directed to the force.
The Justice Ministry said recently that it takes time to instigate the kinds of changes Mr. Oppal recommended – and the former judge does not disagree. The province says a review of policing practices will be coming soon. It says it is working on programs to protect women from sexual exploitation and trafficking. But a recent update made no mention of several of Mr. Oppal’s other suggestions, including the appointment of an aboriginal elder to direct a reconciliation process.
“The Vancouver police and the province have accepted all of my recommendations and are working on them,” Mr. Oppal says. “So I’ll take them at their word. It’s never as fast as you’d like, but some of this stuff isn’t easy, and I recognize that.”
He is, however, concerned about the lack of meaningful change in the Downtown Eastside. And about the fact little has been done to protect defenceless women in northern B.C., many of whom have died after striking out alone on Highway 16, the infamous Highway of Tears. At least 18 who were last seen on the highway disappeared or were murdered in the previous few decades.
Mr. Oppal’s report called on the government to provide public bus transportation along the 800-kilometre route between Prince George and Prince Rupert.
“We have to fix that,” Mr. Oppal says. “There is no one around for miles along that highway. You can’t even get cellphone reception in places. And women continue to hitchhike to towns along the route to get groceries, for heaven’s sake.”
So a year after his investigation ended, Mr. Oppal concedes, little is different in the two areas of the province noted for the disappearance and murder of scores of women.
Despite that, he remains pleased his work continues to reverberate around the world. He has spoken to the United Nations about it twice. He gives two or three speeches a week across the country about his findings and the toll the appointment took on him personally.
“You know, I remember talking to [Justice Patrick] LeSage after he presided over the [Paul] Bernardo case, and he had a complete breakdown when it was done,” Mr. Oppal said. “I felt similar after this. I felt beaten up emotionally. I’m still living with the impact of it three years after I first started.
“I’ve not recovered from the trauma of it all.”
Editor’s Note: A previous online version of this article, and the version published in print, incorrectly said Vancouver police and the provincial government have begun to make progress on 28 of Mr. Oppal’s 65 recommendations and considers three fully implemented. In fact, the Vancouver police have also implemented the three recommendations directed to the force. This version has been corrected.