The Vancouver Police Union is holding its fire in the growing controversy over the impartiality of Wally Oppal as head of the Missing Women Inquiry.
“It’s a concern any time someone in the role he is in, making comments that suggest he has a particular view,” Tom Stamatakis, president of the Vancouver Police Union, said in an interview.
“Our intention is to be co-operative in the process and try to work through to some kind of an outcome on this issue,” he said.
Issues relating to Vancouver’s missing women have been difficult for everyone involved, Mr. Stamatakis added.
“I don’t know that we are going to be interested in adding to the difficulty of the situation, or make it more difficult to get to an outcome. It seems to me like there are already enough people doing that,” Mr. Stamatakis said.
Earlier this week, the criminal justice branch of B.C. attorney-general’s ministry indicated they were reviewing Mr. Oppal’s remarks. A court challenge to stop the inquiry is one possibility.
In a carefully worded response, spokesperson Samantha Hulme said in an interview Tuesday “the criminal justice branch is considering the issue of the comments.” She declined further comment.
Concerns about Mr. Oppal’s impartiality stem from remarks he made in early July that appear to indicate he had already decided that the police had failed to act appropriately in the investigations of missing and murdered women from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Mr. Oppal made the comments in early July while lobbying the government for funding for community groups that he felt should appear at the inquiry. Responding to the concerns, Mr. Oppal in a statement released this week, referred to his credentials as a judge for 23 years to back up his insistence that he understands the need not to come to any conclusion before all the evidence and submissions have been heard.
Former attorney-general Barry Penner said in an interview he had received a call from Mr. Oppal in early July just before a cabinet meeting. “I wasn’t the only cabinet minister to receive a call from the commissioner,” Mr. Penner said.
In a message left on Mr. Penner’s answering machine, Mr. Oppal said the police “gave the back of their hands” to women who complained to police about women being missing and disregarded what the women had to say.
“The government is now being seen as funding the people who allegedly [have]done everything wrong and ignored the women ... [but]will not go and fund the victims, and not fund the women, the poor aboriginal women,” Mr. Oppal said.
Mr. Penner immediately recognized the significance of Mr. Oppal’s comments on his answering machine and sought advice about what to do with the message. “I was concerned if it was erased, I could be seen as destroying evidence relevant to some or all of the parties at the hearing,” Mr. Penner said in an interview.
Mr. Oppal is to begin informal hearings for the missing women inquiry in mid-September in several northern B.C. communities. He has scheduled sessions in mid-September in Prince Rupert, Terrace, Kitwanga, Smithers and Hazelton.
Native bands in some northern communities have told Mr. Oppal he was not welcome in their territory. Family members of some missing women say they will not attend the hearings.
Earlier, several women’s and aboriginal groups have said they will boycott the formal inquiry hearings slated for October.
“It’s a travesty. It just goes from bad to worse,” Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, said Tuesday in an interview. “The families of the murdered and missing women have been done a grievous injustice, in terms of how this inquiry has been handled. What now hangs in the balance is the credibility and integrity of the public inquiry. Obviously, we are at a point now where that is very much in question.”
Mr. Oppal was appointed in October, 2010, to look into police investigations of missing women from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside from 1997 to 2002. His mandate does not include a review of cases involving missing women from the so-called ‘highway of tears’ – Highway 16 – where at least 18 women have disappeared or been killed.
Several people question why Mr. Oppal was coming north if he cannot review the ‘highway of tears’ cases.
Vikki Peters, an aunt to two women who disappeared after travelling on the highway, said she would not go to the hearings. A member of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation, Ms. Peters was part of the 2006 ‘highway of tears’ walk in support of an inquiry into the missing women. But now she questions Mr. Oppal’s sincerity in holding the sessions.
Mr. Oppal could have helped victims’ families when he was attorney-general but he chose not to, she said Tuesday in an interview. “Suddenly he says he wants to do something,” Ms. Peters said. “I don’t think he should be part of this.… If he was dedicated, he would have done a lot before now.”
Terry Teegee, vice-tribal chief of the Carrier Sekani Tribal Council, said Tuesday his group was not going to participate in the northern hearings. “Right from the beginning, there have been so many problems with this commission,” he said. Without government funding, the tribal council does not have the resources to put together submissions to the inquiry or to encourage tribal members to participate, he said.
Chief Larry Nooski, of the Nadleh Whut’en First Nation, said Mr. Oppal was not welcome in their territory around Fraser Lake, about two hours west of Prince George. Similarly, the band around Vanderhoof did not want Mr. Oppal to hold a hearing in its community, he said.