VANCOUVER EASTSIDE MISSING WOMEN
Oppal choice sparks controversy
Some families of missing women criticize selection of former AG to head investigation
By Lindsay Kines, Times Colonist
The B.C. government sparked controversy yesterday by naming former attorney general Wally Oppal to head a public inquiry into the botched investigation of serial killer Robert Pickton.
Attorney General Mike de Jong picked his predecessor to lead the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry, praising his empathy and breadth of experience.
Oppal, 70, served as a judge in the County Court of B.C., B.C. Supreme Court and B.C. Court of Appeal before entering politics and being named attorney general in 2005.
"He was a very human judge and as attorney general he brought those qualities to the task," de Jong said.
But some families of the missing women, as well as others, criticized the appointment of a Liberal government insider, saying it undermines the inquiry's independence.
"He's a good guy," said Lynn Frey of Campbell River, whose daughter, Marnie, was among Pickton's victims.
"He obviously knows his stuff. But I think he's too close. ... I would have preferred, if I had a choice, to have someone who was not totally in the middle of it."
David Eby, executive director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, said there's no doubt Oppal has the necessary experience, having conducted a 1994 review of policing in B.C.
But Eby said there are many people qualified to head such an inquiry, and he called it "surprising and unusual" that the government would appoint someone, who until last May, was the province's top prosecutor. Oppal lost a re-election bid.
"The challenge for him and for the government is going to be the perception of the public and family members who remember him as the guy who defended the decision not to go ahead with the additional 20 murder charges, as the guy who was on the radio saying that we weren't going to learn much from a public inquiry, as the guy who has a direct and recent relationship with the governing political party and whose recommendations could have implications for them -- financial and policy-wise," he said.
De Jong, however, said the inquiry will focus on events that occurred prior to Oppal entering politics. It will review the police investigations conducted between Jan. 23, 1997, and Feb. 5, 2002, into women reported missing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.
An internal police review, released last month, concluded that RCMP and Vancouver police investigators had compelling evidence pointing at Pickton by August 1999, but allowed him to go on killing for the next 21/2 years. Over that period, 14 women went missing and their DNA was later found at Pickton's farm in Port Coquitlam.
Pickton eventually was convicted of killing six women, but 21 other charges were stayed.
The inquiry also will review the January 1998 decision by the criminal justice branch to stay charges against Pickton for attacking a sex trade worker at his farm in 1997.
"I'm not aware of any circumstance that would preclude Mr. Oppal from performing this task in every bit as professional a way as he has performed every other task that he has as a public servant," de Jong said.
But others point out that Oppal will be reviewing the actions of the criminal justice branch, which he oversaw for four years.
"I'm not comfortable with Mr. Oppal heading this public inquiry," said Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs. "I just think that he's recognized and perceived as a political insider who carries a great deal of baggage."
Phillip noted that First Nations leaders dealt with Oppal during the Frank Paul inquiry about whether Crown prosecutors should testify. "There was a real sense that Mr. Oppal's first inclination was to defend the criminal justice branch, as opposed to seeking the answers to some very important questions."
Oppal insisted yesterday that he doesn't anticipate any conflicts of interest.
"In the criminal justice system, we deal often with people that we know who may be witnesses in front of us," he said. "But you have to set that aside. You can't let any personal sentiments enter into whatever findings you may make."
Oppal also is on record defending the government's current approach to policing, which favours integration over regionalized forces. Oppal said that won't affect his review.
"We will make our decision based upon the evidence that we hear, based on the policy considerations, and that's what we'll do."
Former Vancouver police officer Kim Rossmo, who worked on the missing women case, worked with Oppal on his earlier commission of inquiry into policing.
"Wally Oppal is a good choice for the inquiry," said Rossmo, now a professor at Texas State University. "He understands policing and has a history of listening to various view points. He will keep the process focused and, hopefully, produce a manageable set of practical recommendations the government will implement."
Ernie Crey, whose sister Dawn vanished after police had considerable evidence pointing at Pickton, said he, too, is comfortable with Oppal's appointment.
"The first hurdle was getting the inquiry, so I was happy with that," he said. "I think his background experience might augur well for a responsibly conducted inquiry, I'm hoping, with good strong recommendations on how policing can be improved."
Oppal begins his work immediately and has until Dec. 31, 2011, to submit his report. He will decide how to conduct the inquiry, including which witnesses are summoned and how they will provide evidence.
© Copyright (c) The Victoria Times Colonist
Updated: August 21, 2016