Questions are being raised about the legitimacy of the upcoming B.C. missing women inquiry, as two aboriginal groups announced their withdrawal from the process.
A coalition formed by the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs and the Carrier Sekani Tribal Council formally withdrew from the provincial inquiry today (July 27), citing a lack of resources to fully participate in the process.
“If we could put resources towards it we would participate in it, but right now we don’t have the capacity,” Terry Teegee, vice tribal chief of the Carrier Sekani Tribal council told the Straight by phone.
“We’re forced to make this difficult decision to step away.”
The coalition is the second group to decide not to participate in the inquiry. The Native Courtworker and Counselling Association also recently withdrew.
The move comes after Wally Oppal sent an eight-page letter to B.C. Attorney General Barry Penner on June 30 asking him to reconsider his decision not to allocate resources to all 13 participants the commissioner recommended for funding.
Deputy attorney general David Loukidelis told Oppal in a letter dated July 22 that the ministry “has limited financial resources” and reiterated that the government will not fund participants other than the families of missing women, as represented by Vancouver lawyer Cameron Ward.
NDP MLAs Jenny Kwan and Leonard Krog sent a letter to Penner today (July 27), claiming that by continuing to refuse funding for all of the 13 groups, the government is “putting the inquiry process in jeopardy”.
“The government claims that they don’t have the resources to do it, yet they have $7 million to spend on an HST advertising campaign,” Kwan told the Straight in a phone interview. “The government has money to spend for the Basi-Virk case, where a guilty plea was entered.”
“So how it is that the government says that they cannot afford to fund this inquiry for these 13 groups is beyond me,” she added.
Kwan noted that several of the participants formed coalitions in order to be cost-effective. The Vancouver-Mount Pleasant MLA questioned the outcome of the inquiry if there is limited participation from the advocacy groups, many of which worked closely with women that went missing from the Downtown Eastside.
“If the government cannot honour and respond to commissioner Oppal’s recommendation now, what hope do we have that the government will actually respect the recommendations that will be coming out of this inquiry?” questioned Kwan.
“At best, the inquiry and the outcome of the inquiry will be a partial inquiry,” she claimed. “I think that does a disservice for not just the women that have gone have missing and have been murdered and to their families, but also for the women who are at risk today in our communities, and to all of us as a community as a whole.”
Teegee argued the lack of funding for participants “really questions the legitimacy of this inquiry”. He also questioned whether the final recommendations will be followed up on.
“You can inquire about any issue in government or policing, but those recommendations aren’t followed up then it was a useless exercise,” he said.
In his letter to Commissioner Oppal, Loukidelis noted that the commission’s terms of reference do not require funding for the participants, that the Public Inquiry Act does not require public funding of legal counsel for participant groups, and that the attorney general ministry is facing challenges in the context of “reduced fiscal resources”.
Loukidelis also noted that the attorney general believes the commission “can and should be” completed in a way that doesn’t required all participants to be represented by legal counsel.
Teegee expects to see other groups withdraw from the inquiry over the coming days.
“We’ve conferred with the other groups, and they’re frustrated, they’re disappointed,” he said.
Kate Gibson, executive director of the Women's Education and Safe House (WISH), said she views participants like the coalition of sex worker serving organizations as already being shut out of the process.
"How do you withdraw from something that you’re not included in in the first place," she told the Straight by phone.
"That’s what we’re thinking has happened here."
She argued it's hard to know what the process will be like when Oppal's request for funding was rejected by the government.
"It’s difficult to know what water the whole thing will hold, when his voice isn’t heard," she said.
Teegee plans to continue advocating for a separate inquiry for women that have gone missing or been murdered along the Highway of Tears.
He noted that many of the cases along the northern B.C. highway remain unsolved. Teegee’s first cousin Ramona Wilson went missing in 1994, and her remains were found outside the Smithers airport in 1995.
“Up here there’s a lot of unanswered questions, there’s a lot of issues with why these cases haven’t been solved,” he said.
“As a family member personally, it’s frustrating and difficult to put closure to some of these issues up here.”
The commission of inquiry is scheduled to begin study commission hearings in Prince George in October.