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Missing women inquiry switches to public forum format

BY SUZANNE FOURNIER, THE PROVINCE  FEBRUARY 21, 2012

Missing Women Commissioner Wally Oppal announced Tuesday that after 52 days of hearings, 150,000 pages of evidence and often heated arguments between top lawyers, he will switch to a “less adversarial” panel approach as soon as next week.

The Missing Women Commission of Inquiry has heard since last October from two dozen witnesses including testimony by nine members of victims’ families, several experts, police officers and three “very helpful”overviews by police witnesses of the failed VPD and RCMP investigations into the decades-long serial killing spree of Robert Pickton from about 1991 to Feb. 5, 2002.

Now, Oppal said, it is time to move toward “a more cooperative approach,” although panel members still will speak under oath in Federal Courtroom 801 at 701 West Georgia St.

Oppal said he now hopes to “work collaboratively with communities, police agencies, governments and women at risk to develop new strategies to protect women at risk.”

In a statement before the noon adjournment today, Oppal said he is reaching out to victims’ families, First Nations community members and leaders, police and policing bodies and civic government officials.

“My commitment to the safety and security of women, especially marginalized ones has never wavered,” Oppal said. “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.”

The commission also released four new reports, including one on seven forums it held last year in northern B.C. on victims who disappeared or were found murdered along the Highway of Tears. Commission lawyer Art Vertlieb said the “lovely, warm, welcoming people” the commission met in the north told the inquiry they had been “studied to death” and now want substantive action to save women’s lives.

Vertlieb said the panels “will be a dialogue among participants”and “a forum for generating ideas on how to protect vulnerable women and save lives.”

That doesn’t mean the inquiry won’t hear in the future from individual police officers, or members of the Downtown Eastside community who have valuable points of view, said Vertlieb. But Vertlieb said the “factual matrix” surrounding the tragic story of vulnerable sex trade workers going missing for decades from the Downtown Eastside, without systemic police recognition that an active serial killer was at work, is “already well-known to the Commission.”

“An inquiry is only as good as its recommendations,” Vertlieb said in response to media questions. “It can’t be academic, pie-in-the-sky, it’s got to be doable, we need practical recommendations. The Commissioner has the toughest job going forward, he has to write a report that won’t stay on a shelf but will actually help save the lives of marginalized women at risk right now in the Downtown Eastside.”

The inquiry’s new format came as a “shock” however to family members of Pickton victims, many of whom said they were looking forward to hearing individual police officers explain their conduct under oath.

“This hit us like a hammer,” said Lori-Ann Ellis, the sister-in-law of Cara Ellis, one of the 33 women whose DNA was linked after death to the Port Coquitlam pig farm of Pickton. “We feel the police officers should have to answer on the witness stand for their conduct.”

Agreed Lilliane Beaudoin, the sister of Pickton victim Dianne Rock: “To me this inquiry is becoming a big farce. We came for a public inquiry and we’re not getting what we came for. It sounds like Mr. Oppal is just trying to save time and money by getting a lot of witnesses on at once.”

Both Beaudoin, from Welland, Ont., and Ellis, from Alberta, have attended almost every day of the inquiry since last October.

All 25 murdered women’s families are represented by two lawyers, Cameron Ward and Neil Chantler. Oppal’s earlier request for government funding of lawyers for Downtown Eastside groups was denied by B.C. Premier Christy Clark, saying she prefers money to go to women still struggling to get out of the Downtown Eastside.

But now the VPD and RCMP between them, including the VPD board and union and many individual officers, have more than two dozen top criminal lawyers representing them, all paid out of the public purse. That has prompted many activists to dub the inquiry a “sham police inquiry.”

Earlier Tuesday, Toronto lawyer Edward Greenspan, acting for former VPD Chief Terry Blythe, again badgered Ward to apologize for calling the inquiry a “coverup” and a “whitewash.”

Ward refused, saying the RCMP and the VPD, and inquiry counsel, still have failed to produce key police notes, documents, reports and even a full-length book manuscript completed by VPD Det. Const. Lori Shenher, then a front line investigator.

The inquiry continues Tuesday afternoon with Blythe on the stand, although Greenspan has returned to Toronto.

“He didn’t even say goodbye,” lamented Oppal.

Meanwhile, at the Assembly of First Nations meeting Tuesday morning, more than 500 national aboriginal leaders called for a new protocol for keeping track of missing aboriginal women, children and men.

AFN National Chief Shawn Atleo said the community’s deep concerns about missing and murdered women are not being addressed in their entirety at the Oppal inquiry.

“We need a national or Royal Commission of inquiry, with terms of reference drawn up through consultation with First Nations, into the hundreds of aboriginal women across Canada who have gone missing or been murdered, with no adequate police response or investigation,” said Atleo.

Canada’s top RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson also spoke at the AFN conference Tuesday, promising a police representative in each province who will liaise with First Nations and collect all information on aboriginal persons who go missing or are believed to be victims of violence.

Paulson, who was “brushed down” with cedar boughs and smoke, in a lengthy ceremony by Squamish spiritual and hereditary leaders, said he has “consulted with the AFN” and wants leaders to work with the RCMP “as we move forward to our goal of creating healthy and safe communities.”

In a giant hall with large colour photos of about 60 missing or murdered women, Paulson echoed an earlier official RCMP apology made only two weeks ago, expressing “the regret of the RCMP that we did not arrest Robert Pickton sooner” before so many women lost their lives.

The AFN had not yet received the inquiry’s request for First Nations leaders to work with the inquiry to come up with recommendations to protect vulnerable women and prevent more deaths.

Oppal will hold community forums as well starting in May, but he had pledged the formal hearings will be over by the end of April and he will hand in his final report to government by June, 2012.

sfournier@theprovince.com

twitter.com/suzannefournier

 

Email: wleng#missingpeople.net 

Missing Women Tip Line: 1-877-687-3377

Updated: August 21, 2016