The B.C. Missing Women Commission will be treading water for at least the next few weeks, waiting for a response to a request to expand its mandate to allow informal hearings with marginalized individuals, aboriginal groups and families of women who went missing along the highway of tears.
Commissioner Wally Oppal has asked the provincial government to reshape the inquiry into a "study and hearing commission" to enable him to hold additional meetings outside the formal hearing process. "Ultimately, the commission's process would be more inclusive and participants could speak directly to me without the formalities of the adversarial process," Mr. Oppal stated in his report.
Attorney-General Barry Penner said on Thursday he wants to find out whether Mr. Oppal's proposal would require more time and more money.
The cabinet appointed the commission to receive answers to specific questions by Dec. 31, Mr. Penner said in an interview.
"The reason we asked for this inquiry was because there is belief that some things were not done as well as they could have been in the investigation [of serial killer Robert Pickton]" he said. "I would like any information and recommendations as soon as possible."
Mr. Penner said he does not anticipate a quick response to Mr. Oppal's request. A cabinet order is needed to change the terms of reference of the commission, he said, and he did not know when the next cabinet meeting will be held.
The Liberal party last weekend picked radio talk show host Christy Clark to replace Premier Gordon Campbell. The government has not yet announced when she will be sworn in as premier. Mr. Oppal's request will go to the new cabinet once it meets, Mr. Penner said.
Earlier Thursday, Mr. Oppal, who was appointed last fall as head of the commission, said he was going to defer his decision on who has standing at the commission's hearings until he receives a response from the government to his request to expand his mandate. He heard applications for standing from 18 groups and individuals on Jan. 31.
Commission staff will continue to prepare for public hearings while waiting for a government response, he said.
The commission was appointed to consider police investigations between Jan. 23, 1997, and Feb. 5, 2002, into the disappearances of women from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, and to review a decision in January, 1998, to stay charges against Mr. Pickton of assaulting a woman who worked as a prostitute in the area. Mr. Pickton was convicted of killing six women. Police allege he killed several more women after the charges were stayed in 1998.
In a 15-page status report released on Thursday, Mr. Oppal recommended that the commission be reshaped into a "study and hearing commission" similar to the Braidwood Commission into the death of Robert Dziekanski, which included both a review of police use of tasers and an investigation into the fatal tasering of the Polish immigrant.
Mr. Oppal's request for a new mandate came after months of harsh criticism from women's groups and aboriginal communities who objected to his appointment and to the mandate of the commission. Vice Tribal Chief Terry Teegee of the Carrier Sekani Tribal Council said Thursday from Prince George his group continues to press for a separate commission of inquiry into the disappearances of 18 women along a northern road dubbed the highway of tears.
Expanding the commission to allow for study of the issues is not comparable to a full inquiry, he said. "Those cases are not solved," he said. "It is difficult to figure out why that is the case."
Chief Teegee said the aboriginal group will work with Mr. Oppal if the commission is the only venue acting on behalf of the missing and murdered women of the North. "We'll see what [Mr. Oppal]comes to the table with and how he wants to work with us and with the people of the Downtown Eastside," he said.
Kathy Corrigan, the NDP critic for women's issues, urged Ms. Clark to place Mr. Oppal's request at the top of the agenda of the first cabinet meeting. The commission should look at broader societal issues such as the legal status of women who worked as prostitutes, as well as addiction and how to deal with addiction, she said. "If you want to truly address what issues … and prevent what happened in the Pickton case from ever happening again, we have to look at all the circumstances," Ms. Corrigan said.