Three B.C. human rights groups say the Missing Womens Commission of Inquiry failed the people it was designed to help.
West Coast Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF), the Pivot Legal Society and the B.C. Civil Liberties Association have released a report critical of the way the official inquiry was conducted — just days before the commission's final report goes to the B.C. Attorney General.
The Missing Women Commission of Inquiry was launched last year to look into the police mishandling of the investigation into serial killer Robert Pickton.
Human rights groups have criticized the lack of funding for legal representation for aboriginal and women's groups, and many refused to participate in the inquiry.
"I will say it again; this was a missed opportunity to include the voices of marginalized women, of marginalized communities. It perpetuated the very problems it sought to alleviate," said Kasari Govender, executive director of West Coast LEAF.
Lindsay Lyster of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association questions why the province paid for lawyers for police and government interests, but said no to the victims.
As a result, the groups say, critical areas were left unexplored.
"The government's decision to do that put the independence of this commission into very grave doubt," Lyster said Monday.
Pickton, a former pig farmer, was convicted of six murders in 2007. Investigators have said the remains or DNA of 33 women were found on his family's farm in Port Coquitlam. Pickton had bragged to police that he had killed 49.
Earlier reviews pointed to botched police investigations, a reluctance to act because the victims were involved in drugs and the sex trade and a long list of other failures.
Here is the entire report by West Coast Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF), the Pivot Legal Society and the B.C. Civil Liberties Association titled - BLUEPRINT FOR AN INQUIRY: Learning from the Failures of the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry
Among its concerns as set out in the Executive Summary:
From the perspective of the hundreds of marginalized women who protested the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry (“the Inquiry”) every morning for the first month of hearings, the Inquiry was an absolute failure. This perspective is shared by the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, Pivot Legal Society and West Coast LEAF, the human and democratic rights organizations that produced this report.
The Inquiry was set up to examine the problems arising from investigations of the disappearance and murder of dozens of women in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (“DTES”), and particularly the investigation of serial murderer Robert William Pickton. Out of the failures of the Inquiry, which are well documented and understood in the affected communities, the hope of the authors is that a positive legacy can still be uncovered.
If nothing else, this Inquiry demonstrates what should not be done in conducting a public inquiry involving marginalized communities. It therefore functions as a useful lesson for similar inquiries in the future, no matter where they take place. This report does not focus on the nuances of B.C. provincial law, but instead on broad trends and procedural approaches that future commissioners of inquiry and their staff may usefully adapt to the particularities of their own jurisdictions.
If there were only one recommendation to come from this report, it would be that commissions of inquiry that intend to work with marginalized populations as witnesses, or inquiries that are called in response to the concerns of marginalized communities, must consult thoroughly at every stage with those communities and the organizations that work with those communities.
Terms of Reference:
Critical themes left unexplored Limitations on the terms of reference, and an artificially narrow interpretation of those terms of reference by the Commission, left systemic concerns around socio-economic marginalization off the table, themes of organized crime and police corruption troublingly unexplored, and key witnesses uncalled. Financially, the Commission spent twenty times the operating budget of the major drop in centre for sex workers in Vancouver, and yet left many of the community’s most pressing questions unanswered.
Supporting the Participation of Witnesses: Unbalanced legal representation and a lack of support
The failure to provide funded counsel or adequate support systems deterred potential marginalized witnesses from attending to give evidence. For example, the woman who had been stabbed by Pickton but saw charges against him stayed refused to attend to give testimony, despite her central importance to one of the terms of reference of the Inquiry. Instead of consulting with the community or First Nations when the Province refused funding for recommended legal counsel, the Commission appointed two lawyers who would “represent” the diverse Downtown Eastside community and the equally diverse voices of First Nations people.
Quality of Evidence: Compromised by delay, non-disclosure and a lack of fair legal representation
Although many inquiries have taken place concurrent with, and prior to, criminal investigations and charges, the Inquiry was delayed until after Robert Pickton’s criminal trials were complete. Many women died while they waited for the Inquiry to be called, given the harsh and brutal conditions for women in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Others who participated in the Inquiry were asked to remember events that had happened ten or fifteen years previously.
While police had comprehensive paper records of their actions at the time, community witnesses only had their own memories to rely upon. Even so, the lawyers for the families saw many of their clients’ requests to the Commission for disclosure and witnesses ignored for months and then refused. The results of family requests to the Commission were leaked to the media by Commission staff before they were decided in the hearing.
Rules of Evidence: A missed opportunity for truth and reconciliation
Instead of restructuring the rules of evidence of the Inquiry when the Province refused to fund the participation of marginalized people in the hearings, the Inquiry instead established a parallel process for community that could – because of its design – have no influence on the fact finding mandate of the Commission.
Independence: Conflicts of interest and interference abound
Conflicts of interest and interference were prevalent from the outset. A former Attorney General who had suggested there would be little to learn from an Inquiry was appointed as Commissioner. This Commissioner appointed a former Vancouver Police Department officer as Executive Director, a staff member who would go well beyond the role of Executive Director by participating in the preparation of an “independent” expert report prepared by Peel Regional Police Department. This “independent” report, in part examining RCMP conduct, was prepared by the Peel Police which itself had officials under investigation by the RCMP for corruption. To cap these real and perceived conflicts, the Province directly interfered with the Commission by refusing to fund the full participation of parties the Commissioner identified as central to ensuring the fairness and efficacy of the Inquiry.