Advocates for the missing and murdered women of the Downtown Eastside are questioning whether a provincial inquiry has a broad enough scope to properly examine the disappearances and deaths of women in the Vancouver neighbourhood.
At a pre-hearing forum on Wednesday (January 19), commissioner Wally Oppal heard from representatives of community organizations, residents, politicians, and other advocates, many of whom said the upcoming Missing Women Commission of Inquiry’s terms of reference and timeline are too narrow.
Many speakers also paid emotional tribute to the dozens of women who have gone missing from the area, and questioned why their disappearances weren’t investigated earlier.
Vancouver East MP Libby Davies told Oppal that the commission’s report should be hard-hitting and cause “shockwaves” as to what happened, and why.
“Your biggest challenge in this public inquiry is to produce a report that cannot be ignored, cannot be forgotten, cannot be dismissed,” Davies told Oppal.
“The reality is, for over two decades, the city, province, federal government, and law enforcement agencies decided that the steady disappearance of women, mostly aboriginal and mostly working in the sex trade, was not worthy of committing the needed resources to put a stop to it. We’re here to ask why.”
The commission has been asked to examine the conduct of the police investigation into missing women of the Downtown Eastside from 1997 to 2002, and to investigate why an attempted murder charge against Robert Pickton was stayed in 1998. The commission will also make recommendations for police investigations of missing women, and for murder investigations when multiple police forces are involved.
Marlene George of the Women’s Memorial March Committee questioned the timeline of the inquiry’s investigation.
“How did the commission of inquiry come up with the dates of between January 23, 1997, and February 5, 2002?” she asked. “What in those dates is more significant than previous dates of known missing women?”
George said her committee has been asking for an inquiry for a long time.
“The failure to act when lives could have been saved is what’s going to come out in the public inquiry process,” she said.
“The committee for years was asking the police to properly investigate the case of increasing numbers of women disappearing from the Downtown Eastside community.”
Bernie Williams, cofounder of the Walk 4 Justice march for missing women, asked Oppal why the first murdered and missing women police task force hasn’t been investigated.
“Mr Oppal, this has been a long journey for a lot of us women,” she told the commissioner. “Why did it take 69 women before they acted?”
She also asked why Downtown Eastside community organizations haven’t yet been granted standing to address the commission.
“If this is a public inquiry, why aren’t they allowed to sit on this, and why are we not allowed to be a part of the process?” she asked.
According to Oppal, the commission has granted status to four groups so far: the Vancouver Police Department, the RCMP, the criminal justice branch, and representatives of victim’s families, as represented by Vancouver lawyer Cameron Ward.
Oppal said another pre-hearing conference will be held on January 31 with other groups seeking participant status.
Ward, who is representing the families of eight women that were murdered or allegedly murdered by Robert Pickton, said many of the families are skeptical about the inquiry process.
“Many of the family members that I represent...remain quite bitter and angry by the ways that they perceive that the system failed them when they reported their concerns that their loved ones were going missing,” said Ward.
“I feel obliged to say that some were skeptical that this inquiry, with its current structure and its narrow terms of reference, will effectively address their lingering concerns.”
Gladys Radek, who with Williams coordinates Walk 4 Justice, said the public inquiry is the “tip of the iceberg.”
She wants to see a federal public inquiry into missing and murdered women across the country. The group has compiled over 4,000 names of missing and murdered women across the country.
Oppal told reporters following the meeting that the government sets the terms of reference for the commission. He acknowledged that while the timeline examined by the commission is a “major criticism” from some community and family members, he said it would be premature to say whether the commission will approach the government about changing the terms of reference.
The commission is scheduled to begin formal hearings by June, and will deliver a report by the end of the year.