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Missing women inquiry shifts to panel-style format

Rene Beaudoin and his wife Lilliane Beaudoin, arrive at the Missing Women inquiry in Vancouver, Oct. 24, 2011. Ms. Beaudoin's adopted sister Dianne Rock is one of Robert Pickton's victims.

Rafal Gerszak For The Globe and Mail/rafal gerszak The Globe and Mail

After 52 days of hearing from police officers and experts who've attempted to shed light on why Robert Pickton was able to kill for so long, the head of the missing women inquiry now wants input from groups of witnesses.

Commissioner Wally Oppal announced Tuesday that the inquiry will be moving to a panel-style format next week instead of the adversarial single-witness setup that's currently being used.

"We have spent much time and learned a lot about what went wrong and it is now time to focus more actively on any investigative failures and how they can be prevented in the future," Mr. Oppal said.

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He said the inquiry wants to hear from people in the Downtown Eastside from where Mr. Pickton took women to be murdered at his Port Coquitlam pig farm.

Mr. Pickton was convicted of killing six women but admitted to an undercover police officer that he murdered 49 women. The DNA or remains of 33 women were found on his property.

Some family members of the missing women are worried the changes may mean Mr. Oppal won't hear from those police officers directly involved in the missing women case.

Lilliane Beaudoin, whose sister Dianne Rock vanished in 2001, said she wants to hear about what went wrong.

Lori-Ann Ellis, whose sister-in-law Cara was one of Mr. Pickton's victims, added that the only way the police give up any information is if they're pushed.

"I think if we go with something like this, based on the small amount of knowledge that us family members have been given, that may not be the case and that's a concern to us."

Mr. Oppal said he also wants to hear more from victims' family members, first nations groups, the Vancouver Police Board and other officials.

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He told the inquiry he wants to focus on how the relationship between the Downtown Eastside community and police can be improved.

Mr. Oppal said his commitment has always been on the safety and security of women, especially those who are marginalized by poverty, working in the sex trade or because they are aboriginal.

"I am determined to ensure that these women did not die in vain and that positive change resulting in the saving of lives will be the lasting memorial for the missing and murdered women."

He has pledged to hand in his report by June.

Commission lawyer Art Vertlieb said starting the panel process has nothing to do speeding up the hearing.

He said outside the inquiry that the process so far has uncovered a lot of important facts about what happened in the various investigations and when in connection to the inquiry's mandate.

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The inquiry must make findings on police investigations into Mr. Pickton between January, 1997, and February, 2002, when he was arrested.

It must also look into the Crown's decision to drop attempted murder charges against him in connection to a 1997 assault against a Vancouver sex trade worker.

Mr. Vertlieb said the commission wants its first panel to set an atmosphere where people feel welcome and invited. Police won't be involved, he said.

"It's really critical that we change the flavour in a way, because we're at the recommendation stage, that's more important now than it was on day one."

That doesn't mean witnesses won't be heard from again individually if necessary, he said.

"There's no structure that's set yet because we want to have it unfold," he said. "It will be interesting to see what we hear from the aboriginal leaders and the community leaders."

Victims' families have complained that they haven't been represented properly at the inquiry because the government didn't give them funding for lawyers.

There are dozens of lawyers at the inquiry, but most of them represent Vancouver police or RCMP officers.

The announcement of the format change comes on the same day that the inquiry released four reports meant to spark debate about how to protect and police the province's most vulnerable women.

The reports make dozens of recommendations to improve safety for the women of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside and for those who still insist on hitchhiking along Northern B.C.'s so-called Highway of Tears.

There's been a series of unsolved murders along Highway 16, which runs between Prince George and Prince Rupert, and dozens of women disappeared while Mr. Pickton stalked the Downtown Eastside.

The reports recommend police patrolling the highway no longer drive past hitchhikers fitting a certain profile, that a type of Amber Alert be implemented for missing sex trade workers and that more female officers patrol the Downtown Eastside.

Mr. Vertlieb said the goal of such recommendations is to ensure that a potential serial killer is stopped as soon as possible.

The reports also suggest that a restorative justice plan be created to improve the relationship between police and the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood, which is home to vulnerable people including sex trade workers and drug addicts.

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