Skip to main content

Commissioner Wally Oppal listens to presentations during the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry public forum in Vancouver, B.C., on Wednesday January 19, 2011.Darryl Dyck/ The Canadian Press

The commissioner overseeing the public inquiry into the Robert Pickton case has launched a formal investigation into anonymous allegations of sexual harassment against his staff, overshadowing a process that itself has been exploring whether bias against women and sex workers played a part in the failure to catch a serial killer.

The allegations were contained in a story published Wednesday by the National Post, which reported that several former staff members told the newspaper they heard sexual and derogatory comments from commission staff.

None of the sources are named, and none make allegations against any specific staff member. There are no allegations commissioner Wally Oppal was personally involved.

Mr. Oppal said he first learned about the allegations last Friday when his main lawyer was interviewed for the story, and he's since appointed lawyer Delayne Sartison to investigate the claims. It wasn't clear when Ms. Sartison will report back with her findings.

"I was appalled, outraged, shocked and hurt when I learned of that article," Mr. Oppal, visibly upset with his voice shaking at times, told reporters during a break in the hearings Wednesday.

"It is contrary to everything that this commission of inquiry stands for. What we're trying to do here is achieve fairness and justice, particularly for the families, who went through horrendous times by having loved ones lost."

Mr. Oppal, who did not take questions, said there had been no formal complaints from any current or former staff members, and he insisted such behaviour wouldn't be tolerated if complaints were made.

"I have never heard anything inappropriate ever said to anyone or about anyone," Mr. Oppal said.

"If anything, the staff and the young law students and lawyers are very concerned about what happened [in the Pickton case] They are advocates for social justice. … If I had heard something, I can assure you that I would have done something immediately."

The inquiry has been plagued by controversy and complaints since its inception.

Critics have complained about the appointment of Mr. Oppal, a former judge and Liberal cabinet minister, and of the inquiry's terms of reference, which focus exclusively on the actions of police and prosecutors rather than the social problems that led impoverished women, including many aboriginals, into sex work in the first place.

Those complaints have been exacerbated by the provincial government's decision to deny legal funding for a number of participants, including as aboriginal groups and sex worker advocates, prompting them to withdraw from the process.

Independent lawyer Robyn Gervais, who was appointed by Mr. Oppal to represent the interests of aboriginal people, resigned last month amid complaints that the inquiry was not focusing enough on the native women who were among Mr. Pickton's victims. When she left, Ms. Gervais did not raise concerns about working conditions or other commission staff. She declined to comment Wednesday.

Lillian Beaudoin, whose sister Dianne Rock's DNA was found on Mr. Pickton's farm, said she hopes the allegations turn out to be false.

"We respect everybody here, and we don't need any more complications than what we already have with this inquiry," Ms. Beaudoin said outside the hearings.

"We really need for them to investigate it, because we hope that they're not true. Imagine – we're here for an inquiry about our murdered girls, and we're finding out information about how our girls were treated. We don't need this going on."

The inquiry, which is examining why Vancouver police and the RCMP failed to catch Mr. Pickton in the late 1990s and early 2000s, has heard allegations that police were indifferent to reports of missing prostitutes because they were women involved in the sex trade and because many were aboriginal.

Later on Wednesday, one of the first officers tasked with investigating reports of missing sex workers in the Downtown Eastside testified about a book she authored about the Pickton case that was never published. In it, she raises concerns about attitudes towards women within the force.

The book by Detective Constable Lori Shenher, which has been submitted to the inquiry but will not be released to the public, describes a Vancouver police undercover section known as "strike force," which was involved in surveillance work targeting Mr. Pickton, as "a waking nightmare for women."

A senior officer who was in charge of major crimes during the missing women investigation, Inspector Fred Biddlecombe, is described in the book this way: "His management style was one of total indifference to women and mere tolerance of most men."

Det. Constable Shenher wrote the book in late 2002 and early 2003, when she was considering leaving the force. She ended up staying with the department and remains a detective constable.

Det. Constable Shenher played down some of the passages in her book, saying her opinions have matured over time.

But Cameron Ward, a lawyer representing the families of more than two dozen missing and murdered women, said the book is valuable evidence about what was happening in the Vancouver police force.

"This witness's inside description of how dysfunctional the Vancouver Police Department was, how objectionable the conduct of the senior management was, goes to the issue that my clients are primarily concerned about," Mr. Ward said.

"Why didn't they [the police]act? This tells us why: because they appear to have been completely incompetent, disinterested, indifferent to women."

Mr. Pickton was arrested in 2002, when RCMP officers executing an unrelated warrant for illegal firearms stumbled upon the belongings and remains of missing women.

He was convicted of six counts of second-degree murder.

The remains or DNA of 33 women were found on his farm. He once told an undercover police officer that he murdered 49 women.