The voices of aboriginals are so important to the public inquiry into the Robert Pickton case that the hearings must be put on hold for three weeks until a new lawyer is found to look out for First Nations’ interests, the commissioner overseeing the process said Monday.
The lawyer appointed to represent aboriginals quit last week, complaining the inquiry focused too much on the police and not enough on aboriginal women – a group that overwhelmingly accounted for Mr. Pickton’s victims.
The inquiry will resume April 2, several weeks before hearings are currently scheduled to conclude, which will make it difficult for commissioner Wally Oppal to report by his deadline of June 30. The province’s justice minister said the delay won’t affect the deadline.
Mr. Oppal himself has lamented the process has been moving too slowly, but he told the inquiry that he couldn’t carry on without a lawyer to represent First Nations.
“The relationship between the criminal justice system in general and the police in particular and the aboriginal communities needs a critical examination,” he said.
Mr. Oppal asked the province’s attorney general last year to give him until the end of 2012 to report.
Commission counsel Art Vertlieb would not say whether Mr. Oppal will again ask Justice Minister Shirley Bond for more time.
“If we can’t get it done in the time frame, then we’ll deal with it,” he told reporters. “Right now, we’re just going to keep pressing on.”
Ms. Bond insisted Mr. Oppal can still finish his work before the summer.
“It’s important for British Columbians that these recommendations come back to the government in what I believe is a very reasonable period of time,” she told reporters in Victoria on Monday.
She rejected concerns the inquiry has become too focused on the police.
“This is about police conduct,” Ms. Bond said. “It’s about police practices.”
Robyn Gervais, the lawyer appointed to advance the interests of the aboriginal community, quit last week, saying the hearings were dominated by evidence from police, with few aboriginal witnesses.
Ms. Gervais was appointed last year after the provincial government denied Mr. Oppal’s recommendation that several advocacy groups receive legal funding. A lawyer appointed to represent Downtown Eastside residents remains at the hearings.
Since the funding decision, First Nations have largely boycotted the inquiry.
Ed John, the grand chief of the First Nations Summit, told Mr. Oppal last week he didn’t believe the inquiry could meet its mandate without aboriginal representation and announced his group was formally withdrawing. The First Nations Summit was one of the last aboriginal groups still participating.
Mr. Vertlieb said the commission has been in contact with a respected lawyer who may take the job, but he wouldn’t release a name until the commission had given its approval.
He said he believed an experienced lawyer would be able to get up to speed on the information presented at the inquiry during the three weeks the commission is off.
Before adjourning, the commission finished the cross-examination of a panel of four retired Vancouver police officers on Monday.
Former Const. Dave Dickson, who was the force’s liaison with sex workers in the 1990s, said the situation for women in the Downtown Eastside has grown more dangerous.
The DNA of 33 women was found on the Pickton pig farm in Port Coquitlam, B.C., although the serial killer told an undercover officer that he killed 49 women.
He was first accused of killing 26 women, but was eventually convicted of six counts of second-degree murder.