Well before the September 28 appointment of Wally Oppal to head a public inquiry into the missing-women investigations, he was asked about the topic on CBC Radio.
“I think an inquiry should only be held if we think we can learn something from the inquiry,” Oppal told Rick Cluff, host of The Early Edition, on August 6. “We’ve had an exhaustive trial here. And a lot of evidence has come out. A lot of people have recognized that we could have done things a lot better.”
Oppal stated that inquiries can take on a life of their own. He also said they’re expensive. “You establish an inquiry and then you’ve got 25 lawyers in the room,” he claimed. “And the inquiries go on forever.”
Cluff then asked Oppal a second time whether there should be a public inquiry into the investigations of serial killer Robert Pickton. Again, Oppal waffled.
“We know that there are multiple policing agencies in the Lower Mainland,” the former attorney general said. “And are we going to learn anything by virtue of the fact that there were multiple investigations going on? Should the complaints have been received in a different way? So those are things that sometimes the police can do themselves. Sometimes government can assist them doing those things. So merely because things didn’t go the way they should have gone doesn’t necessarily mean we should embark on a lengthy inquiry.”
Several minutes later, Cluff asked the question a third time. Oppal responded that he wasn’t saying there shouldn’t be an inquiry.
“I’m just saying that if we’re going to have an inquiry, let’s put a proper focus on the inquiry,” he emphasized. “And let’s find out what issues we’re going to inquire into.”
Oppal’s comments on CBC disturbed Jamie Lee Hamilton, a former street prostitute of aboriginal descent and a long-time advocate for sex workers. She told the Georgia Straight in a September 28 phone interview that the former attorney general’s remarks demonstrated that he was “noncommittal” on the need for a public inquiry into the missing women.
“So I have no confidence in him,” Hamilton declared. “The appointment should be rescinded, and the government needs to come back to the various stakeholders [and] communities of interest and properly consult.”
Hamilton is the spokesperson for the Community Inquiry Committee, which is composed of sex workers, advocates, and relatives of the missing women. On September 7, the CIC wrote to Attorney General Mike de Jong and Premier Gordon Campbell asking that the terms of reference for a public inquiry focus on the safety of sex workers. Moreover, the CIC wanted the inquiry to be headed by the B.C. representative for children and youth, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, and to review policies dating back to 1983.
The Oppal-led inquiry’s terms of reference do not address the safety of the sex trade. His mandate covers the period from 1997 to 2002, which means it doesn’t address the period from 1986 to 1993, when Campbell chaired the Vancouver police board.
B.C. NDP Leader Carole James wouldn’t say that Oppal’s appointment should be rescinded. However, in a phone interview with the Straight, James criticized the B.C. Liberal government’s refusal to consult with the community before selecting a commissioner. She noted that there is a perception among some families of missing women and within the aboriginal community that Oppal’s former cabinet position means he’s too close to the government to be independent.
“I think the government has got to answer for the questions around perception of conflict,” James said. “I think Mr. Oppal is going to have to answer them. Whether he can do that to the satisfaction of the families and the aboriginal community and the community at large remains to be seen. I think that conversation should have occurred first, instead of after the appointment.”
The Straight asked the Ministry of Attorney General for an opportunity to interview Oppal. Oppal did not call back by deadline.
What do you think of the appointment of Wally Oppal to head the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry?
“He has a credible background in the judiciary. He will have to demonstrate that he is completely independent, given his close association as a [former] minister with the Campbell government. He’s there to represent the public interest, and he will have to show all of us that that’s what he is going to do.”
“The police are once again going to be investigating the police. Wally Oppal was the top cop [as attorney general], and now he’s going to be investigating the failings of the police in this matter. I think it was very shortsighted of them to appoint somebody who was formerly involved with the criminal-justice system in that capacity.”
“It’s certainly an interesting choice.”¦He talked about regionalization [in the past] as being something that needed to happen and”¦it appears that one of the issues in the Pickton thing was the left hand and the right hand [were] not necessarily working against each other but not necessarily working together in the most productive ways.”
“I think those of us who’ve followed him know that he’s a man of integrity, really a groundbreaking person in many ways, one of the first nonwhites appointed to the bench. He’s served as attorney general in the province.”¦I think the government’s made an excellent choice in asking him to head up this inquiry.”