VANCOUVER EASTSIDE MISSING WOMEN
Rough road ahead for Wally Oppal
He must look at multiple incidents over several years as he lead Missing Women Inquiry in Pickton case
BY THOMAS R. BRAIDWOOD, SPECIAL TO THE VANCOUVER SUN November 8, 2011
The Commission of Inquiry, which I headed, into the death of Robert Dziekanski following a Tasering by an RCMP officer at Vancouver International Airport in 2007 was an emotional and traumatic experience for many people, not least of all Dziekanskiís mother Zofia Cisowski.
It was a long and complex inquiry involving dozens of witnesses and hundreds of hours of testimony. In the end, I believe we achieved a measure of closure for Cisowski and the people of British Columbia, and our recommendations have been widely accepted.
Now, as I read media reports of the Missing Women Inquiry into the Robert Pickton serial killer case, it strikes me that Wally Oppal faces a far more arduous test than I did.
Unlike the Taser incident at YVR, which took place over a number of hours, Oppalís commission is looking at multiple incidents over several years.
Even before the hearings started, Oppal faced a barrage of criticism and was squeezed between the highly charged political environment of the Downtown Eastside, a provincial government that felt unable to provide the money needed to allow more groups to be represented by counsel at the inquiry, and some media commentators who savaged him for his perceived shortcomings and suggested that the commission was taking too long and costing too much.
I am not an apologist for Wally Oppal; he doesnít need that from me. I know him as an experienced jurist who has made a lifelong contribution to the legal profession and the administration of justice in B.C.
He is also a sensitive and caring person who is no doubt hurt by the personal attacks and suggestions that his commission is dead in the water.
But based on the news reports Iíve read so far, itís clear to me that the inquiry is far from dead and will not be the meaningless, one-sided whitewash that some critics predict. Contrary to the perceptions created, the testimony so far shows that the interests of the murdered and missing women, the broader Downtown Eastside community, sex workers, drug users and aboriginal women are represented by experienced and capable lawyers.
The voices of these groups and individuals are being heard and will continue to be heard as the inquiry progresses. I believe their lawyers will ensure that police and Criminal Justice Branch witnesses are cross-examined thoroughly and in a manner that facilitates the work of the inquiry.
I know that time and money are important. I felt these pressures during the Dziekanski hearings; the final budget was higher than originally anticipated and I was compelled to ask for several extensions of my reporting deadline.
No doubt, the Missing Women Commission will follow a similar pattern.
This is not unusual. We know from decades of experience with commissions across Canada that they are neither cheap nor quick. Oppalís would not be the first inquiry to be underfunded at the start; in fact, itís quite common.
For example, in her 2005 report on the Toronto Computer Leasing Inquiry, Justice Denise Bellamy said the city of Torontoís budget estimate for the inquiry was ďunrealistically low,Ē which had unpleasant repercussions because it raised expectations in the city council and among the public that were impossible to meet in the actual circumstances.
In a lecture at McGill University in 2006, Justice John Gomery, who headed the inquiry into the federal Liberal sponsorship scandal, said criticism that commissions cost too much is valid only if one takes the position that a price can be put upon the search for truth and justice.
With that in mind, we should look beyond the obvious to see what real benefit we, as British Columbians and Canadians, will derive from the Missing Women Commission.
At its heart is the need to ensure public accountability and reform public policy.
But there are also other issues at stake.
In her Toronto Computer Leasing Inquiry report, Bellamy wrote that while inquiries seek to ensure that any mistakes uncovered will not be repeated, they also serve another less obvious, but equally important purpose: They are restorative.
At the Missing Women Inquiry the restorative attribute could manifest itself as the families finding closure; the RCMP, the Vancouver police department and the Criminal Justice Branch accounting for their actions; and Oppal recommending improvements to policies and procedures.
And in a broader sense, it may even achieve what Justice Peter Cory stated in the 1995 Supreme Court of Canada Westray coal mine explosion judgment as a purpose of commissions of inquiry: to help restore public confidence not only in the institution or situation investigated, but also in the process of government as a whole.
After a career in the legal profession, Thomas R. Braidwood served on the Supreme Court of B.C. and later the Court of Appeal of B.C. and Yukon Territories. He retired in 2006.
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Updated: August 21, 2016