VANCOUVER EASTSIDE MISSING WOMEN
Oppal appoints investigator to probe Missing Women inquiry staff harassment allegations
BY NEAL HALL, VANCOUVER SUN APRIL 4, 2012
VANCOUVER - The head of the Missing Women inquiry announced today he has appointed an independent investigator to probe workplace harassment allegations made by former inquiry staff.
"I am outraged by these anonymous allegations and I take them very seriously," Wally Oppal said in a statement issued this morning.
He was responding to allegations made in a National Post story, which alleged that five former inquiry staff were subjected to demeaning, sexist and disrespectful comments.
Oppal said commission counsel Art Vertlieb was shocked by the accusations and made Oppal aware of the matter after he was interviewed last Friday by a National Post reporter.
"Neither I, nor senior counsel had any knowledge of this kind of behaviour at the Commission," Oppal said.
"There have been no formal complaints made and no former employees have come forward with allegations," he said.
"Had anyone come to me or to senior counsel, we would have immediately launched an investigation and the person responsible would have been dealt with accordingly," Oppal said.
"Upon learning of these allegations, we engaged the services of an experienced independent investigator (Delayne Sartison, Q.C.) to look into the allegations."
Oppal made the announcement before the inquiry began this morning at 9:30 a.m.
There was no advance notice to the media that Oppal planned to make the announcement at 9:15 a.m.
Cameron Ward, the lawyer representing The families of Pickton's victims at the inquiry, said today his clients were shocked and appalled by the latest allegations.
"I'm very disturbed by this, given the nature of the inquiry's work" he told reporters during a break in the inquiry.
"I hope it gets resolved quickly," he said.
"These recent allegations come out of the blue and are appalling," Ward said.
"I have not witness conduct described in the article."
Ravi Hira, a lawyer at the inquiry representing Earl Moulton, a retired RCMP assistant commissioner, said the allegeations also took him by surprise.
"I have seen no evidence of that in the course of my involvement in the inquiry," he said.
Hira said he has know Vertlieb for two decades.
"He has an excellent reputation and there is no way he would countenance this sort of activity, in my view," he said.
Lilliane Beaudoin, the sister of one of Pickton's victims, said she hoped the latest allegations are untrue.
She said the allegations serve to further undermine the credibility of the inquiry, which has been hit by a series of problems from the start.
"We're frustrated," Beaudoin added. "With all the ups and downs, it's like being on a rollercoaster."
The inquiry will hear the resumed testimony this afternoon of Vancouver police Const. Lori Shenher, the first officer to investigate the women being reported missing.
Her testimony was adjourned after Ward applied to have access to an unpublished book Shenher wrote about the Pickton case.
The inquiry has heard how Shenher was frustrated while working on the case back in 1998 and 1999, when she received credible tips about Pickton, who became the prime suspect.
The VPD felt Shenher did an amazing job on the case, which was hampered by the lack of resources and an interest from senior management.
The Missing Women inquiry, which began last Oct. 11, is probing why it took so long to catch serial killer Robert (Willie) Pickton, who is believed to have killed more than four dozen women before he was arrested in 2002.
The inquiry has heard how police did not properly investigate the women disappearing from the streets of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.
Police refused to believe at the time that a serial killer was preying on women.
Here is Oppal's full statement issued today:
I am outraged by these anonymous allegations and I take them very seriously. I was first informed about these allegations last Friday morning by Senior Counsel Art Vertlieb, after he was interviewed by Brian Hutchinson of the National Post. Mr. Vertlieb was shocked by these accusations and came to me right after the interview was over. I immediately took the steps to initiate an independent investigation into the allegations.
The behaviour described in the allegations in the article goes against everything I stand for as a human being and as the Commissioner of this Inquiry. Anyone who knows me understands that I am someone who bases my personal and professional relationships on respect.
Neither I, nor senior counsel had any knowledge of this kind of behaviour at the Commission. It would not be tolerated.
There have been no formal complaints made and no former employees have come forward with allegations. Had anyone come to me or to senior counsel, we would have immediately launched an investigation and the person responsible would have been dealt with accordingly. Upon learning of these allegations, we engaged the services of an experienced independent investigator (Delayne Sartison, Q.C.) to look into the allegations.
There is no tolerance for the kind of behaviour that is described in the article. No one should ever be made to feel disrespected, demeaned, or harassed in the workplace or in their personal lives. That is unacceptable behaviour.
The Commission staff is made up of professionals who are motivated to make positive change in the world. They work tirelessly and with great commitment to the Commission's mandate. I spend a great deal of time in the Commission office. In fact, I am in there almost daily. It has always been my personal style to walk around the office and speak one-on-one with people. I do that on a regular basis and no one - not one person - has ever brought up any of the issues outlined in this article to me. There has never been any indication of issues of this nature.
I have always recognized the stressful nature of this work. Since we began, we have made what we believe are strong efforts to provide support to our staff, including offering unrestricted and confidential access to the services of a psychologist in case they have issues they wanted to discuss.
I have every respect for the people that work with this Commission - those that are on staff, those that have worked with us in the past and for everyone who participates in this challenging process on a daily basis. That is what makes these allegations so devastating. These allegations do not reflect who I believe we are as a Commission or as people.
Like every office, we have had budget issues, we have had personality conflicts, we have had contracts that expired or were not renewed. I have felt that throughout all of the hard work, the challenges, the public criticism and the pressures that we always have had respect for one another. Not once has anyone come to me with a complaint about the kind of behaviour that is outlined in this article. I am truly saddened by this.
We will not let these allegations shift our focus over the coming days and weeks from what we are here to achieve - to gather relevant information so that a valuable report can be produced that will have effective recommendations. We all need to remember our objective here - we are here to save the lives of our most vulnerable citizens.
I realize that you will have many questions about this article. I am not able to answer those questions until we have the report from the independent investigation that has been started.
© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun
Updated: August 21, 2016