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Missing women inquiry suffers another blow as lawyer representing First Nations quits

BY SUZANNE FOURNIER, THE PROVINCE  MARCH 6, 2012

The Missing Women Commission of Inquiry was dealt another blow to its credibility Monday with the withdrawal of the last lawyer who speaks for First Nations.

Virtually all key women’s and community groups had already pulled out of the inquiry after they were denied legal funding to analyze 100,000 pages of documents.

Robyn Gervais, appointed last Aug. 12 as “independent counsel for aboriginal interests,” left the inquiry after commissioner Wally Oppal refused to hear her statement.

Gervais said she will outline 50 contentious points to the commission if she is allowed to speak this morning.

But she confirmed she has withdrawn due to “the delay in calling aboriginal witnesses, the failure to provide adequate hearing time for aboriginal panels, the lack of ongoing support from the aboriginal community and the disproportionate focus on police evidence.”

An emotional Gervais said that “as I leave, I regret that I could not find a way to bring the voices of the missing and murdered aboriginal women before the commissioner.”

She noted a disproportionate number of the missing women were aboriginal.

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, said he supports Gervais.

“We worked very hard to get this inquiry, but it has become a travesty, a further injustice to the families of murdered women,” said Phillip.

Also Monday, four retired VPD officers with decades of experience talked about the difficulties of policing in an area dominated by addiction and poverty.

Former VPD constable Dave Dickson, who has worked in the Downtown Eastside for 30 years, began by objecting hotly to statements by lawyer Cameron Ward that police panels at the inquiry can’t help determine why so many women went missing.

Ward, who represents the families of 25 murdered women, told Oppal the VPD panel “will not help you get at the truth.”

Dickson took offence at that remark.

“To say I’m not going to tell the truth because I’m sitting between two police officers, I find that extremely offensive,” he said. “I waited for years to come here, to this inquiry.”

As soon as he started the beat, Dickson said, he realized the “system didn’t work for a large proportion” of Downtown Eastside residents.

He visited area schools and daycares and attended community meetings.

Most kids were thrilled by his uniform but some were scared, said Dickson. He cited “one little First Nations girl, about four or five,” who pushed herself on her back across the floor to get away from him.

Dickson learned her mother was an addict and her father a South American drug-dealer.

“Police were coming in all the time arresting the mum and beating the father up,” said Dickson.

Also on the panel are former VPD Staff Sgt. Doug MacKay-Dunn, former Insp. Chris Beach and former Deputy Chief Gary Greer, all of whom did stints in the Downtown Eastside either on patrol, in the jail or as police managers.

“In my 30 years of policing, the Downtown Eastside was awful when I started and awful when I left,” Beach said. ”Putting more police officers on street corners isn’t going to prevent tragedies in the future.”

MacKay-Dunn, now a North Vancouver city councillor, agreed, saying “I’m so, so, so sorry that Pickton was not stopped sooner.”

Dickson became a street-level advocate for the community, responding to up to 750 pages a month. He went to all the community meetings he could, ranging from the Franciscan Sisters of Atonement to the Downtown Eastside Residents’ Association (DERA)and the Salvation Army, to agencies helping sex-trade workers, such as the WISH women’s drop-in and PACE (Prostitution Alternatives Counselling and Education).

The panel agreed that having a frontline community cop is “expensive,” as much as $100,000 a year, because, as Beach emphasized, the officer has to be freed up from responding to police calls “in order to be available for 750 pages a month.”

The panel has yet to address how dozens of women could go missing from the Downtown Eastside starting in the 1980s, during the exact period that many of these four officers were on the job.

Convicted serial killer Robert Pickton was found guilty of killing six women, lured with drugs and alcohol from the Downtown Eastside, primarily from the blocks surrounding the VPD station, to Pickton’s Port Coquitlam pig farm.

Pickton confessed in jail to killing 49 women but an extensive forensic search of his farm found the remains and DNA of 33 women.

Pickton’s killing spree is believed to have started in 1991. He stepped up his pace to a murder almost every six weeks throughout 2001, which is when a joint VPD-RCMP police force was tasked with finding out why so many women were missing.

Accurate information about who Pickton was and evidence of murder, including the bloody women’s clothing and other trophies scattered about his pig farm, was provided to both Vancouver police and RCMP as early as 1998.

An eyewitness who would eventually become crucial to convicting Pickton was identified in 1999.

The inquiry, which will wrap up formal and panel hearings by the end of April, is tasked with finding out why police didn’t stop Pickton from 1997, when he almost killed a Vancouver sex-trade worker on his farm, until Feb. 5, 2002, when his farm was searched on an unrelated firearms matter and evidence swiftly found of the missing women.

Charges against Pickton, related to “Victim 1997” who was herself a highly credible witness at Pickton’s preliminary hearing, were stayed in 1998 by the Crown.

The inquiry must also detemine why that case, called a “slam-dunk” conviction that would have prevented Pickton from killing at least another 18 women, did not proceed to trial.

sfournier@theprovince.com

 

 

Email: wleng#missingpeople.net 

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

Updated: August 21, 2016