The former judge overseeing hearings into the Robert Pickton case defended his public inquiry Tuesday against allegations it's ignoring the voices of aboriginals, as a lawyer appointed to represent that community resigned.
Commissioner Wally Oppal said he's eager to hear the stories of First Nations people living in Vancouver's impoverished Downtown Eastside, but he insisted it's not his job to delve into the centuries of abuse, poverty and neglect faced by Canada's aboriginals.
Mr. Oppal was forced to respond after lawyer Robyn Gervais, who was appointed to advance the interests of the aboriginal community, told him she was quitting because the hearings have been too heavily focused on police and not on the poor native women who overwhelmingly accounted for Mr. Pickton's victims.
"The issues that you raise about poverty and colonization, those are all very valid concerns," Mr. Oppal said Tuesday. "Unfortunately, the focus of our commission of inquiry, contrary to the wishes of many people in the province, are not to get into those issues … Our focus here is on the police investigation."
Ms. Gervais was appointed last year after the provincial government rejected a request to provide legal funding for a number of advocacy groups, including several organizations representing aboriginals. Another lawyer was appointed to present the views of Downtown Eastside residents, including sex workers and drug addicts.
Those two lawyers didn't have specific clients but were told to solicit input from the groups that were denied funding. First Nations groups have largely boycotted the hearings, and Ms. Gervais has said she has received little support from the aboriginal community.
Ms. Gervais, who is Métis and previously represented the Carrier Sekani Tribal Council, told Mr. Oppal the hearings have become dominated by evidence from police officers, and has so far heard from only a handful of aboriginal witnesses.
She said that leaves Mr. Oppal unable to determine whether systemic racism against Mr. Pickton's victims played a part in the failure to catch the serial killer. She said those concerns were reinforced last month as she requested the inquiry hear from two panels of witnesses focusing on native issues.
Ms. Gervais said she suggested one panel of witnesses from the Vancouver Police and Native Liaison Society, to be held over four days, and another featuring aboriginal residents from the Downtown Eastside to discuss their treatment by police.
She said she was told the native liaison panel could be scheduled in April, while the panel of aboriginal residents would have to wait until a less-formal study commission that will be held after the current round of hearings.
Ms. Gervais said she was led to believe the native liaison panel would only have one day, although a commission lawyer later insisted no time constraints were put on the panel.
"Given that these hearings are largely about missing and murdered aboriginal women, I didn't think I should fight to have their voices heard," she told Mr. Oppal as her voice broke with emotion.
He replied that he, too, was concerned about the ever-growing number of lawyers at the inquiry, but he said police agencies and officers accused of wrongdoing have a right to defend themselves.
He told Ms. Gervais he was disappointed with her decision and that he would have accommodated any witnesses she may have wanted to call. "I don't think it's productive at all if someone withdraws from an inquiry that's going to make some recommendation. By not having you at the table, your voice is not being heard."
It's not clear how Ms. Gervais' departure will affect the hearings, or whether she will be replaced.
She said she had been contacted by a handful of aboriginal witnesses in recent weeks, some of whom indicated they were willing to appear at the inquiry, although she couldn't say whether they would still come forward without her.
First Nations groups have been dismissive of the inquiry almost since its inception, and that skepticism was only amplified by the province's decision not to provide legal funding last year.
Stewart Phillip, grand chief of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, said it's clear the hearings won't adequately represent the voices of aboriginals.
"They have not yet finished the police witnesses, and there is virtually no time left for the credible participation of aboriginal voices, which is an absolute tragedy," Mr. Phillip said outside the hearing room. "This inquiry is not about missing and murdered police officers; it's about missing and murdered women. ... It has no credibility."
Mr. Oppal's final report is due by the end of June, and formal hearings are scheduled to finish by the end of April.
The inquiry was called to examine why police failed to catch Mr. Pickton as he murdered sex workers in the late 1990s and the early 2000s. He was arrested in 2002, and the remains or DNA of 33 women were found on his farm in Port Coquitlam. He was eventually convicted of six counts of second-degree murder, but once told an undercover police officer that he killed 49 women.
The Canadian Press