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Pressure on Oppal mounts as integrity of B.C. missing women hearings doubted

Wally Oppal is coming under increasing pressure as he prepares to begin hearings for the missing women inquiry in several northern B.C. communities.

Mr. Oppal has scheduled sessions in mid-September in Prince Rupert, Terrace, Kitwanga, Smithers and Hazelton.

Native bands in some northern communities have told Mr. Oppal he was not welcome in their territory. Family members of some missing women say they will not attend the hearings.

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At the same time, the criminal justice branch of the Attorney-General's Ministry is closely reviewing remarks by Mr. Oppal that have raised concerns about his impartiality, and several women's and aboriginal groups have said they will boycott the formal inquiry hearings slated for October.

"It's a travesty. It just goes from bad to worse," Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, said Tuesday in an interview. "The families of the murdered and missing women have been done a grievous injustice, in terms of how this inquiry has been handled. What now hangs in the balance is the credibility and integrity of the public inquiry. Obviously, we are at a point now where that is very much in question."

Mr. Oppal was appointed in October, 2010, to look into police investigations of missing women from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside from 1997 to 2002. His mandate does not include a review of cases involving missing women from the so-called highway of tears – Highway 16 – where at least 18 women have disappeared or been killed.

Several people question why Mr. Oppal was coming north if he cannot review the highway of tears cases.

Vikki Peters, an aunt to two women who disappeared after travelling on the highway, said she would not go to the hearings. A member of the Wet'suwet'en First Nation, Ms. Peters was part of the 2006 highway of tears walk in support of an inquiry into the missing women. But now she questions Mr. Oppal's sincerity in holding the sessions.

Mr. Oppal could have helped victims' families when he was attorney-general but he chose not to, she said Tuesday in an interview. "Suddenly he says he wants to do something," Ms. Peters said. "I don't think he should be part of this.… If he was dedicated, he would have done a lot before now."

Terry Teegee, vice-tribal chief of the Carrier Sekani Tribal Council, said Tuesday his group was not going to participate in the northern hearings. "Right from the beginning, there have been so many problems with this commission," he said. Without government funding, the tribal council does not have the resources to put together submissions to the inquiry or to encourage tribal members to participate, he said.

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Chief Larry Nooski, of the Nadleh Whut'en First Nation, said Mr. Oppal was not welcome in their territory around Fraser Lake, about two hours west of Prince George. Similarly, the band around Vanderhoof did not want Mr. Oppal to hold a hearing in its community, he said.

Responding earlier this week to concerns raised about his impartiality, Mr. Oppal referred to his credentials as a judge for 23 years to back up his insistence that he understands the need not to come to any conclusion before all the evidence and submissions have been heard. The concerns stem from remarks he made that appear to indicate he had already decided that the police had failed to act appropriately. He made the comments while lobbying the government for funding for community groups that he felt should appear at the inquiry.

The criminal justice branch is considering the issue of the comments of the commissioner, spokeswoman Samantha Hulme said.

Former attorney-general Barry Penner said he had received a call from Mr. Oppal in early July just before a cabinet meeting. "I wasn't the only cabinet minister to receive a call from the commissioner," Mr. Penner said.

Mr. Penner immediately recognized the significance of Mr. Oppal's comments on his answering machine and sought advice about what to do with the message. "I was concerned if it was erased, I could be seen as destroying evidence relevant to some or all of the parties at the hearing," Mr. Penner said in an interview.

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