VANCOUVER – It’s been 16 years since Lorelei Williams’ cousin vanished from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, but sitting through a recent public inquiry into serial killer Robert Pickton has roused in her the same feelings of helplessness she had then.
Williams is among victims’ family members deeply disappointed in the inquiry, two weeks before the commission is scheduled to report its findings and recommendations to British Columbia’s provincial government.
Police were dismissive and accused Pickton victim Tanya Holyk of being a cocaine addict when her mother, who is Williams’ aunt, sought their help in 1996.
“When my auntie kept trying to report her missing, it was just like seeing my auntie up there,” Williams’ said of scenes that unfolded during the inquiry. “Our voices weren’t being heard.”
“Nor was that of our lawyer,” added Michelle Pineault, whose daughter Stephanie Lane’s DNA was found on the Pickton farm.
“He was slapped, daily. It was like he was in a kindergarten class … He couldn’t get information that we wanted, he couldn’t get witnesses he wanted. Was it a complete inquiry? Absolutely not.”
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The two women attended the release of a report Monday by three B.C. human rights organizations, which argues much more should and could have been done to include the voices of marginalized women during the Missing Women Inquiry.
“This inquiry was a missed opportunity to include the voices of … those people who were most directly impacted by the subject matter of the inquiry,” said Kasari Govender, executive director of West Coast LEAF, a non-profit group dedicated to women’s equity.
“It re-perpetuated the very problems it sought to alleviate.”
However, inquiry commissioner Wally Oppal urged people to wait for his recommendations and keep an open mind when they are released.
“My report puts forward strong recommendations for change and it is imperative that everyone comes together to ensure that we can better protect our most vulnerable citizens,” Oppal said in a statement.
“If individuals, groups and associations don’t find a way to support my report, the recommendations will not be acted upon. That does not serve our communities or leave a positive and lasting legacy for the missing and murdered women.”
The groups, which also include the B.C. Civil Liberties Association and Pivot Legal Society, were among 15 that were initially granted standing in the process, but pulled out in protest after being denied government funding.
The inquiry was called more than two years ago after much public outcry. The B.C. government gave the commission a specific mandate that asked it to probe the failings of police that allowed serial killer Robert Pickton to hunt women for so long.
Many of the groups had hoped the inquiry’s mandate would be broader to include looking at the systemic issues that gave way to the conditions in which Pickton’s victims lived: most were poor, aboriginal sex workers and many used drugs.
When nothing changed and funding was denied, the organizations decided not to participate and two lawyers were appointed to broadly represent the interests of aboriginals and people living in the impoverished Downtown Eastside.
More than two dozen lawyers represented police and government.
The report released Monday repeated the group’s contention that the process was flawed from the start. But it suggested lessons can be learned if the government recognizes the inquiry “demonstrates what should not be done” when marginalized people are involved.
“It is entirely possible to do an inquiry process that meets the needs of the community according to the (financial) demands we’ve all been hearing about,” said Govender.
Compensation for the inquiry commissioner, former judge and politician Wally Oppal, should have been the same as judicial salaries, while the inquiry’s own lawyers should not earn more than what provincial Crown lawyers earn, the groups recommended. That way, funds could be reallocated to groups representing marginalized people.
Last summer, media reports said Oppal earned $324,000 last year. British Columbia’s top-paid judge earned $265,000 in the same period.
The report released Monday also argued that had more funding been provided to make the inquiry more friendly and supportive of reluctant witnesses, they may have been more likely to step forward.
It gives the example of a woman who was attacked by Pickton but survived. Charges against him were stayed years before the killer was apprehended.
However, the groups did not talk to the women, who was initially slated to testify at the inquiry but then declined, saying she had moved on with her life.
Govendor argued that had the inquiry taken a different approach to ensure she wasn’t fearful of being retraumatized, she might have been willing.
Another recommendation is for the province to look to other places that have held processes aimed at truth and reconciliation, such as South Africa after apartheid and Ontario after the Ipperwash incident, where an unarmed native protester was shot dead. The groups argue that in those cases, marginalized groups were consulted at every stage of the process, allowing healing to occur.
The groups say they are hopeful the upcoming commission report will address police failings, but don’t expect it to do much in the way of healing wounds.
“That’s not a one-time deal that you can come to at the end after excluding marginalized voices,” Govendor said. “After all that has been done, some words on paper are not going to foster the kind of reconciliation that could have been fostered here.”
Commissions must also do better when it comes to disclosure of critical documents and in ensuring there are no conflict of interest concerns, stated the report. The report noted a former Vancouver police officer was executive director of the commission.
It also suggested that creative approaches for getting input from marginalized groups could be used, such as having trained statement takers from trusted organizations talk to those people and bring their evidence to the inquiry.
The commission has been given several extensions but is scheduled to deliver its findings to B.C.’s attorney general by Nov. 30.
Oppal said Monday the only way any lasting change will come from the Pickton case and from his inquiry is if there is an “attitude of co-operation and collaboration” among the police and people who work with marginalized groups.