Calls for an aboriginal woman to lead the upcoming provincial inquiry into missing women dominated a public forum in Vancouver on Sunday (December 5).
Audience members at a forum on violence against women in the Downtown Eastside voiced concerns about next year’s missing women commission of inquiry, to be led by former B.C. attorney general Wally Oppal.
“We’re concerned about a couple of things,” Fay Blaney of the Aboriginal Women’s Action Network told the Straight following the event. “One is that Oppal is heading it—that’s a serious concern because we see it as a conflict of interest. This is a guy that didn’t want any inquiry to happen, and now he’s in there, and the second concern is the absolute lack of consultation with the aboriginal community on what the inquiry should be looking at.”
Vancouver activist and Walk4Justice organizer Gladys Radek said families should be included in the inquiry process.
“Right now at this time, we feel that the families are not being included in any of the decision-making for this public inquiry,” Radek told audience members at the forum.
“We feel that it’s important that the families are the ones that we’re speaking about.”
Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, the president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, supported calls from several speakers at the forum for an aboriginal woman to lead the inquiry.
“We have to remove Oppal as quickly as possible, and replace him with somebody more appropriate, and we have to broaden the terms of the reference, and it has to be through a consultation process that never happened,” Phillip told the Straight. “It’s got to happen soon.”
Calls were made at Sunday's public forum for increased consultation with families of missing women, for an aboriginal woman to lead the provincial inquiry, and for the first police task force that investigated women that went missing from the Downtown Eastside to be examined.
Oppal, who also attended the forum at the Aboriginal Friendship Centre, defended the inquiry process in an interview with the Straight following the event.
“The families are involved in a major way,” he said. “We’ve had a number of lawyers who have come to us—they’re going to seek standing on behalf of the families, and I want the families to get involved.”
Oppal dismissed claims that he was originally against an inquiry.
“The only time I opposed the inquiry was when the trial was going on,” he added. “You cannot have a trial under our law and an inquiry at the same time.”
The forum was hosted by MP Libby Davies, MLA Jenny Kwan, and Vancouver city councillor Ellen Woodsworth.
“There has been so much grief and tragedy in this neighbourhood, about what’s happened to the missing women, about how the situation was ignored for so long,” Davies said. “For too long it’s been swept under the rug and ignored.”
Speakers at the event also called for the causes of violence against women to be addressed, and some called for the abolition of prostitution.
“It seems like the inquiry is going to be looking at largely the police... and there isn’t really any looking at the root causes that bring aboriginal women into being in the Downtown Eastside, being in situations of dire poverty. And people here spoke about child apprehension and our experiences in residential school—all of those things are not going to be even considered,” Blaney told the Straight.
“We need abolition of prostitution first and foremost, and to look at our circumstance and how aboriginal women are such vulnerable citizens in a rich country like Canada.”