Appointing former B.C. Liberal cabinet minister Wally Oppal as head of the inquiry into the investigation of serial killer Robert Pickton was "the worst possible choice", says Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs.
"I am quite astonished the provincial government consider him an appropriate appointment," Mr. Phillip said moments after B.C. attorney-general Mike de Jong announced Mr. Oppal's appointment. "Can you think of someone with more baggage and more centrally involved?"
Mr. Phillip, who speaks on behalf of 99 First Nations in B.C., said he was concerned over Mr. Oppal's involvement in discussions around the Pickton issue while he was a member of the provincial cabinet. Also, Mr. Oppal has previously made numerous statements on staying criminal charges, which is now one of the areas that he has been asked to consider, Mr. Phillip said.
As well, Mr. Oppal has a track record on handling commissions of inquiry.
"In the Frank Paul inquiry, he met with the senior [aboriginal]leadership and made a commitment that no stone would be unturned but we ended up going to the Supreme Court of Canada on whether Crown prosecutors should answer questions on why charges were not laid," Mr. Phillip said.
(The Frank Paul inquiry examined circumstances surrounding the death of Mr. Paul, a Mi'kmaq from New Brunswick, in December, 1998. Mr. Oppal was attorney-general when the inquiry was appointed in August, 2007.)
"So I do not take any great comfort from his statement, that his door will always be open," Mr. Phillip said.
Mr. De Jong announced Mr. Oppal's appointment at a news conference Tuesday morning. The inquiry will review the missing women investigations from Jan. 23, 1997 to Feb. 5, 2002, when Mr. Pickton was arrested. Mr. Oppal has also been asked to look into the decision of Crown prosecutors on Jan. 27, 1998 to stay charges of attempted murder against Mr. Pickton and into how police in B.C. have conducted investigations into serial killings.
Mr. de Jong dismissed the suggestion that Mr. Oppal was too close to the government or that a perception of a conflict of interest should disqualify him from heading the inquiry.
The inquiry will consider a period when Mr. Oppal was not in government, he said. By the time he became attorney-general, the charges had been laid and the prosecution was underway, Mr. de Jong said. Mr. Oppal was attorney-general from 2005 to 2009, when he was defeated in the provincial election. Prior to politics, he served for 23 years as a judge.
Mr. de Jong said he was not concerned about whether Mr. Oppal may have a personal relationship with Crown prosecutors or police who may be called as witnesses in the inquiry.
"I am not aware of any circumstances that would preclude Mr. Oppal from performing this task in every bit a professional way as he has performed every other task he has," he said.
Mr. Oppal said he saw no conflict or perception of conflict arising from his appointment.
"I was a judge for 23 years. I understand what conflicts are about. I understand what a reasonable perception [of conflict]and bias is," Mr. Oppal said.
"I won't hesitate to criticize people that need to be criticized. I did that in the past and will continue to do it," he said.
Earlier, B.C. NDP leader Carole James called on the provincial government to reconsider the appointment of Mr. Oppal as head of the Pickton inquiry.
The appointment should be put off until aboriginal groups, women and the families of the victims have been consulted, she said.
"Wally Oppal certainly has a lot of skills and abilities but I do worry once again that the government is not talking to the people who are going to be directly impacted," Ms. James said Tuesday in an interview.
Ms. James said she is concerned that some people believe the former Liberal politician is too close to the Liberal government. "He was part of this government, he was attorney-general, so he was in a key position. I think there is a perception there may not be independence there," she said.
"That is not the way you want to start off and resolve the issues and concerns that are out there on the Pickton investigation."
"Perceptions, whether reality or not, cause concern," she said.
"The government needs to sit down and talk to the community and see whether it can be resolved."
In anticipation of the appointment several families of victims told media they were disappointed with the choice of the former politician to head the inquiry. They felt he was too close to the government.
A women's group as well as Mr. Phillip were critical of the government for creating the inquiry without consulting those who have called for an inquiry for years. Aboriginal and women's groups from the Downtown Eastside have repeatedly said the cycle of killing continued because the women, who were mostly aboriginal, were marginalized by society.
They echoed similar sentiments Monday.
Grand Chief Phillip said he had a hard time believing what he was hearing. He could not understand how the B.C. government could announce an inquiry without consulting with aboriginal groups or women's organizations about the terms of reference. "I cannot begin to tell you how upset I am," Mr. Phillip, said Monday. "This comes as a complete surprise. We were not consulted with regard to either the appointment or the terms of reference," he said.
UBCIC has been calling for a public inquiry for years. The organization has participated in countless marches, candlelight vigils, demonstrations and rallies that called for a public inquiry, he said. Several resolutions calling for an inquiry have been endorsed as well at its conventions. "There should have been an opportunity extended to us to have a discussion about the terms of reference," he said. "We're definitely not happy about this."
Daisy Kler, spokeswoman for the Vancouver Rape Relief and Women's Shelter, said the government had not spoken to them and she had not heard of consultation with any other women's group. "I'm not sure who they talked to, but they certainly have not talked to women's groups," she said.
She was concerned that the inquiry would be limited to a review of the police investigation. The commissioner should hear from groups that describe the discrimination women experience in dealing with the criminal justice system, she said.
The inquiry should also look at the role of the mayors who were head of the Vancouver police board during the investigation and at the decisions of Crown prosecutors who dismissed some women as unreliable witnesses and decided not to bring criminal charges against Mr. Pickton earlier than they did, she said.
Mr. de Jong also announced that he intended to speak with representatives of The Native Women Association of Canada to hold a national conference in B.C. in early 2011 on the broader concerns of the marginalization of women with addictions who work as prostitutes. "It is after all a national issue and a national challenge," he said.
The inquiry launch comes weeks after the Supreme Court of Canada upheld the conviction of Mr. Pickton for the murder of six women from the Downtown Eastside. DNA samples of 33 women from the neighbourhood were found on his pig farm. Crown prosecutors have said they do not intend to charge Mr. Pickton with any additional murders because he is already serving the maximum sentence possible under Canadian law. He was sentenced to 25 years without parole.