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British Columbia Missing-women’s commissioner urges groups to keep ‘open mind’ in light of criticism

Photographs of missing women are displayed as commissioner Wally Oppal speaks at a public forum for the missing women’s inquiry in Vancouver on Jan. 19, 2011.


Stating "it is imperative that everyone comes together," the commissioner of the missing-women inquiry has urged three groups who branded the proceedings an "absolute failure" to keep an open mind until his final report is released.

Wally Oppal, who is leading the inquiry into missing and murdered women in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, must submit his report to the province by the end of the month. His mandate was to investigate how serial killer Robert Pickton was allowed to get away with killing for so long. A date for the report's public release has not been set.

On Monday, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, Pivot Legal Society, and West Coast LEAF held a news conference to issue a report of their own, primarily recommending that inquiries consult more thoroughly with marginalized populations.

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Their report called the inquiry a failure – even though Mr. Oppal's final report has not been submitted, and despite the fact the groups said there is reason for optimism when it comes to some of his findings.

Mr. Oppal, in response, issued a statement that asked the groups to wait and read his report "with an open mind and to come to the table with an attitude of co-operation and collaboration."

"My report puts forward strong recommendations for change and it is imperative that everyone comes together to ensure that we can better protect our most vulnerable citizens," he wrote.

Mr. Oppal said if individuals, groups and associations don't support his report, the recommendations might not be acted upon, a fact he said would not serve communities "or leave a positive and lasting legacy for the missing and murdered women."

A spokeswoman said Mr. Oppal was working on the report and unavailable for an interview Monday.

During the news conference – held at the Carnegie Community Centre, on the Downtown Eastside – members of all three community organizations shared their criticisms of the inquiry.

Darcie Bennett, campaigns director for Pivot Legal, said the inquiry should have been about the failure of the criminal justice system's response to missing and murdered women, and the inability to meet the needs of women in this community. But Ms. Bennett said the inquiry's terms of reference were too narrow, and she criticized the B.C. government's decision not to fund groups representing sex workers and Downtown Eastside residents.

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Kasari Govender, West Coast LEAF's executive director, said the inquiry missed out on a number of attainable goals. She said it could have provided an opportunity to hear from the community impacted by the missing and murdered women, and to institute changes to the justice system to keep women safe.

When asked why the groups didn't wait until after Mr. Oppal's report was released to issue their criticisms – particularly since the final report could involve justice-system changes – Ms. Govender said she was critiquing the process of the inquiry.

"One of the things that we're hopeful for in the final report is recommendations that will change how police and the justice system deal with these issues in the future. I have some optimism about that," she said.

Lindsay Lyster, the BCCLA's president, agreed.

"We remain optimistic about the contents of the report, in terms of the recommendations which will come forth. If we find recommendations that we agree with, you will find us saying that we agree with them and that we support them," she said.

However, Ms. Govender added the report could not make up for failing to provide marginalized voices the opportunity to speak.

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"After all that has been done, some words on paper are not going to foster the kind of reconciliation that could have been fostered," she said.

The report released by the three groups makes 23 recommendations in all. Among them are that terms of reference be developed in consultation with communities directly affected by the prospective inquiry, and that inquiries be launched as soon as practically possible after the event in question.

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