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Funding controversy stalls B.C. missing women inquiry

Photographs of missing women are displayed as Commissioner Wally Oppal speaks during the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry public forum in Vancouver on Wednesday Jan. 19, 2011.

Darryl Dyck/ The Canadian Press/Darryl Dyck/ The Canadian Press

The B.C. inquiry into missing women is bogging down over the government's refusal to fund the participation of a series of groups - a decision that commissioner Wally Oppal says threatens his ability to produce a meaningful report.

"We have been temporarily derailed by what has taken place," Mr. Oppal said in an interview Monday.

He cancelled meetings last week in Northern B.C., where women are still disappearing along Highway 16, to try to work out the funding issues with groups representing women, aboriginals and residents of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

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While legal resources have been provided to the police who are under the spotlight at the inquiry for their handling of the case of serial killer Robert Pickton, the groups who represent victims say they cannot take part in the inquiry without legal funding. The shortfall is less than $2-million, Mr. Oppal estimated.

"Their evidence is important," said Mr. Oppal, who until now has stayed in the background on the funding dispute.

As well, he said, he wants to take testimony from Kim Rossmo, a specialist in geographic profiling who was the first police officer to suggest there was a serial killer at work in the Downtown Eastside.

Mr. Rossmo was ignored by senior investigators and Mr. Pickton continued to prey on vulnerable women for years before he was arrested and charged in 2002. He was eventually convicted of murdering six prostitutes, charges were stayed in 20 other murder cases, and he boasted of killing 49 women to an undercover police plant in his jail cell.

Mr. Oppal said he needs additional funds to ensure Mr. Rossmo, who now works at a Texas university, can testify before the inquiry. "We need him more than he needs us," Mr. Oppal said.

Last week the commission was set to hold meetings in Vanderhoof, where police are still searching for a 20-year-old woman who disappeared while camping in central B.C. three weeks ago. Vanderhoof Mayor Gerry Thiessen said Monday he'd hoped to talk to the inquiry about levels of justice and policing services in rural communities that he said put women at risk.

"We sense that government doesn't see issues of security and justice as we feel it needs to be addressed in the North," he said. "We are seeing frustration over underfunded services." Mr. Oppal said the inquiry will still hold sessions in the North but no dates have been set.

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Terry Teegee of the Carrier Sekani Tribal Council said groups like his, representing missing women and their families, may walk away from the inquiry if the funding issue isn't resolved. "If that's the case, how much legitimacy will it have?"

Adrian Dix, leader of the Opposition New Democratic Party, said the commission shouldn't be struggling for funding. "It's surely one of the more important inquiries we've seen in a generation in B.C.," he said.

While Premier Christy Clark is at a western premiers conference this week calling for a national initiative to better protect aboriginal women from violence, Mr. Dix said, her government has been dismissive of the inquiry into missing women. "This is government by photo-op and we need a little more seriousness," Mr. Dix said.

Attorney-General Barry Penner, however, said there is no additional funding to come for the advocacy groups. He said the province will fund the commission's six lawyers and will pay for lawyers for the families of missing and murdered women.

"I haven't discovered any additional funds in my budget in the last little while," he said. "And you don't have to have a lawyer to appear before the commission."

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About the Author
B.C. politics reporter

Based in the press gallery of the B.C. Legislature in Victoria, Justine has followed the ups and downs of B.C. premiers since 1988. She has also worked as a business reporter and on Parliament Hill covering national politics. More

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