The former judge overseeing the public inquiry into the investigation of Robert Pickton made an impassioned plea Monday for his critics to help him craft his eventual recommendations, arguing politics must be set aside to find ways to save vulnerable sex workers from the same fate as the serial killer’s victims.
Commissioner Wally Oppal’s inquiry has been overshadowed by criticism from aboriginal organizations and other advocacy groups, which were denied funding to participate and have complained the inquiry has been too focused on police. The latest objections came from one of the commission’s own lawyers, whose resignation last month prompted Mr. Oppal to put the hearings on hold for three weeks.
As the inquiry resumed from its hiatus Monday, with more than two dozen witnesses still to testify and less than two months left to hear them, Mr. Oppal called on his critics to come forward with their own suggestions to reform a system that failed the women who died on Mr. Pickton’s farm.
“Every person that has spoken up and spoken out comes here with the same goal: to make a positive change,” Mr. Oppal said.
“We cannot let the Willie Picktons of the world triumph because we get caught up on how things should be and aren’t. We can’t let politics, bureaucracy, anger or frustration with the process or any other issues be our driving force.”
Mr. Oppal appointed lawyer Robyn Gervais to represent aboriginal interests after the provincial government denied legal funding to a number of participant groups. Ms. Gervais quit last month, though another lawyer who was appointed to advance the views of sex workers and residents of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside still remains at the hearings.
As she resigned, Ms. Gervais told Mr. Oppal the inquiry was concentrating too heavily on the police and not the poor, drug-addicted aboriginal women who made up many of the victims.
She was far from the first to raise concerns about the hearings. Most advocacy groups withdrew from the process when they were denied legal funding, and the aboriginal community has largely boycotted the process.
Families of the victims and other critics have complained the inquiry’s terms of reference are too narrow, ignoring the impact of poverty, racism and prostitution laws. They’ve also objected to the decision to appoint Mr. Oppal, who was attorney-general during Mr. Pickton’s trial.
Mr. Oppal said he understands why some feel the inquiry’s scope should extend beyond the police, but he said that’s no reason to sit out of a process that nevertheless has an opportunity to make change.
“The door is always open to any group or person that would like to reconsider their decisions.”
“I am asking you to contribute to this process in whatever way you feel is of value. If that is as a critic, we welcome your feedback. If it is to attend the hearings or the public forums, tell us your story. If it is to send an e-mail to tell me what you believe needs to be done to help our most vulnerable people, that is very much needed.”
Mr. Oppal’s terms of reference include a period between 1997, when Mr. Pickton was accused of attempting to kill a sex worker from Vancouver, and his arrest in February, 2002. He is examining why the Vancouver police and the RCMP in nearby Port Coquitlam, where Mr. Pickton’s farm was located, failed to catch him, and why Crown counsel declined to prosecute Mr. Pickton for the 1997 attack.
Mr. Oppal has insisted those terms preclude him from examining larger social issues such as the impact of colonization on aboriginal people, who disproportionately accounted for Mr. Pickton’s victims.
The inquiry was initially scheduled to wrap up formal hearings at the end of April, but they have now been extended into May. Mr. Oppal’s final report is due June 30.
The remaining witnesses include police officers, Crown prosecutors involved in staying charges of attempted murder in the 1990s and the victim in the 1997 case.
On Monday, victim services workers and two officers from the Vancouver Police Department’s native liaison unit testified about the challenges they faced, particularly when it came to reporting the disappearances of sex workers.
They repeated earlier concerns that a civilian worker in the missing person’s unit named Sandy Cameron was reluctant to take missing person reports, instead telling family members and others that the women were transient and weren’t actually missing.
Freda Ens, a victim services worker who was the director of the Vancouver Police Department’s Native Liaison Society, recalled what happened when she attempted to report Mary Lidguerre missing in the mid-1990s.
Ms. Lidguerre disappeared from the Downtown Eastside in 1995 and her remains were found two years later in North Vancouver. She wasn’t connected to the Pickton farm, but police have said she may have been the victim of yet another serial killer who targeted sex workers.
But when Ms. Ens attempted to report Ms. Lidguerre missing, the missing person’s unit refused to take the report, she recalled.
“I was told, ‘She’ll show up at the Sunrise [Hotel]behind a pint of beer, they always do,’ ” Ms. Ens testified. “And Jack [Lidguerre's brother]was told the same thing.”
Mr. Pickton was convicted of six counts of second-degree murder and is serving a life sentence.
The remains or DNA of 33 women were found at his farm. He once boasted to an undercover police officer that he killed a total of 49 women.
The Canadian Press