SEPTEMBER 22, 2011 4:48 PM
It’s hard to get to the bottom of any problem — let alone make changes to ensure it doesn’t happen again — without the needed resources.
Wally Oppal’s inquiry into the Robert Pickton case, and the disappearance of 33 women from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, lacks those resources. Its credibility and effectiveness are both in doubt. With its formal work due to start Oct. 11, it is time to ask whether it is even worth continuing with the inquiry.
Oppal’s assignment is to look at the reasons 33 women — marginalized, dealing with poverty, addiction or prostitution — could go missing in a five-year period without police recognition that a serial killer might be on the loose, why attempted murder charges were stayed against Pickton in 1998 and why he could kill with impunity for years.
The inquiry was announced on Sept. 9, 2010, more than two years after Pickton was convicted of six murders. Families of the missing women and advocacy groups were pleased that questions would finally be answered.
Its credibility was dealt a serious blow three weeks later, when the provincial government appointed Oppal, a former judge and former attorney general, to lead it. Oppal had been in the provincial cabinet until the 2009 election. He had downplayed the need for an inquiry, and his appointment raised immediate fears that this would not be a truly independent inquiry.
The inquiry’s mandate also limited potential recommendations around regional policing and the role of government policy toward the addicted and impoverished in the crimes.
The inquiry was dealt another hugely damaging blow in May. Oppal had approved legal standing and representation for the victims’ families and 13 groups dealing with sex trade workers, Downtown Eastside residents and aboriginal people, among others. Their participation was needed to make the inquiry effective, he said, and legal representation was required to allow them to participate.
The provincial government said no. The families could have one lawyer. The groups would not have legal representation, despite Oppal’s protests.
The police will have taxpayer-funded lawyers. So will prosecutors and politicians and government employees.
But not those speaking for the victims and the communities from which they came. Already, about half the groups have announced that they will not take part; more may follow. Oppal has attempted to provide some representation within his budget, but the inquiry is now further tainted, with the interests of the powerful clearly coming ahead of those of the powerless.
The process so far, combined with the foot-dragging leading up to the inquiry, suggests the government has no real interest in learning from these deaths, or acting to prevent similar killing sprees in future.
Consider another government’s response to another high-profile serial criminal, Paul Bernardo. Between May 1987 and December 1992, he sexually assaulted 18 women and killed three more in southern Ontario.
Bernardo was convicted in September 1995. That December, the Ontario government ordered a review and appointed Judge Archie Campbell to conduct it. He completed his work within seven months and the report was released inJuly 1996. The Ontario government announced immediately that it would act on his recommendations.
Campbell’s report was damning, and identified issues — like fractured policing — that later allowed Pickton to kill without detection. He cited several cross-jurisdictional cases — including serial killer Clifford Olson — and said the lack of communication and co-operation between law enforcement agencies was a factor in all of them.
Pickton’s victims were ignored, marginalized and abused in life. The government’s shoddy handling of the reluctantly called inquiry continues that abuse. If the government refuses to fund the inquiry adequately, it is unlikely to act on any recommendations.
It’s time to consider abandoning the inquiry. It has become a symbol of the grim reality that the government simply does not care about these victims, or the women who are at risk of a similar fate.
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