The head of a provincial inquiry into missing and murdered women investigations in the Downtown Eastside is recommending that its mandate be broadened.
Wally Oppal has recommended to the B.C. government that the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry include a study commission to hear from members of the public on policy issues related to missing and murdered women.
“The additional powers of a study commission would allow us to address the concerns of the community by giving the Commission increased flexibility over its process, including the ability to engage directly with the public outside of the formal hearing process,” Oppal said in a status report issued by the commission today (March 3).
Oppal said a study commission, which is less formal than a hearing commission, would allow different forms of participation from the public.
“Applicants who may not strictly meet the test for standing in a hearing commission could still be involved in the study portion of our work,” he wrote. “Ultimately, the Commission’s process would be more inclusive and participants could speak directly to me without the formalities of the adversarial process.”
But some advocates for missing and murdered women are questioning the effectiveness of a study commission.
"We don't need to be researched anymore," said Walk4Justice organizer Gladys Radek. "We've been researched to death - and why do we need more research on finding out why they screwed up in the first place?"
"They're doing nothing to implement programs and safety nets for women and children," she added.
Radek said she wants to see Oppal step down as commissioner of the inquiry. She's also calling for a separate inquiry into women that have gone missing from the Highway of Tears in northern B.C.
"This is just the tip of the iceberg," said Radek. "We have over 3,000 missing and murdered women across this country."
The commission has so far granted standing to four groups: the Vancouver Police Department, the Government of Canada, the Criminal Justice Branch and the families of eight victims, as represented by Vancouver lawyer Cameron Ward.
The commission has also received applications from 18 other groups. Oppal said he’s concerned the total number of potential participants is “unwieldy” for an evidentiary hearing.
“We would like to be as inclusive as possible in considering the many applications for standing; however, the hearing process must be efficient,” he wrote.
While Oppal originally said he would issue his ruling on standing by the end of February, he is now deferring that decision until after he has received direction from the provincial government on his recommendation.
At a community forum held January 19 in the Downtown Eastside, Oppal listened to concerns and criticisms of the commission’s mandate. Many speakers said the inquiry's scope is too narrow.
The appointment of former B.C. attorney-general Oppal as the commissioner of the inquiry has also received criticism from groups including the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs.
Oppal said community feedback over recent months has identified a number of participation concerns, including the need for a more accessible and community-driven process, that vulnerable and marginalized groups should not be made to feel excluded by an overly formalized process, that aboriginal groups should be involved in a way that is culturally sensitive, and that the northern communities affected by the Highway of Tears investigations into missing and murdered women should be given an opportunity to participate.
The commission was established in September 2010 to conduct hearings into the conduct of investigations by B.C. police forces into missing women from the Downtown Eastside between January 23, 1997 and February 5, 2002.
Formal hearings have not yet been scheduled. The commission will deliver its report by the end of the year.