Two more groups withdrew their participation from the B.C. missing women inquiry today (August 9), after they say aboriginal, sex worker and front line women’s organizations were shut out of the process.
West Coast LEAF and the Ending Violence Association of B.C. sent a letter to Commissioner Wally Oppal today announcing their withdrawal.
“The main reason for us withdrawing is not really about funding for our own participation, it’s about the fact that the decision to not fund community groups for counsel really shuts out a huge range of voices,” West Coast LEAF executive director Kasari Govender told the Straight by phone.
Other groups, including The Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, the Carrier Sekani Tribal Council and the Native Courtworker and Counselling Association, have also said they can’t participate in the inquiry, following the government’s decision not to fund their legal representation.
B.C.’s attorney general ministry opted to fund the legal counsel for families of Robert Pickton’s victims, but cited "limited financial resources" in their decision not to fund the participation of community groups.
Last week, the commission informed participants they will be hiring at least two lawyers to represent the groups’ interests at the inquiry.
“The commission is looking to hire at least two and maybe more independent lawyers,” commission spokesperson Chris Friemond told the Straight.
“They’ll be paid by the commission, they’ll be on contract, and their role will be to represent the public interest at the hearings and specifically to represent the perspectives of two broad groups- the one being the Downtown Eastside community and the other being aboriginal women,” he said.
Friemond said the lawyers won’t represent specific clients, but will have “a good understanding” and network within those communities.
“It will be up to them to then reach out to those communities and consult with them to make sure that as far as possible, the issues and perspectives of those communities are brought to the commission,” he said.
According to Govender, the decision wasn’t enough to make a difference for her coalition.
“How can these counsel who don’t have clients represent the perspectives of aboriginal women, which is a very diverse group of people, and of members of the Downtown Eastside, which again is a very diverse group of people,” she said. “They can’t represent the complex histories that the community groups that have participant status bring to the table.”
The Downtown Eastside Women's Centre and Feb 14th Women's Memorial March Committee also released a statement last week opposing the commission’s proposal.
“The amicus proposal is an attempt to lend legitimacy to a fundamentally flawed process by having a few lawyers who purportedly serve all our interests,” the statement read.
Govender said another key factor in the group’s decision to withdraw from the process was their concern over the outcome of the inquiry.
“We’re not at all sure that the recommendations that come out at the end will be meaningful recommendations or that there’s any political commitment to implementing them,” she said.
Friemond said the commission hopes to finalize and announce the appointment of the independent lawyers by the end of the week.