The commissioner of the B.C. missing women inquiry has released a report finding "blatant failures" with the police investigations of women reported missing from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside in the years leading up to Robert Pickton's arrest.
In a 1,448-page report entitled "Forsaken" released today (December 17), Wally Oppal writes that the investigations included a failure to “consider and properly pursue all investigative strategies” and a “general systemic failure" to address cross-jurisdictional issues between police forces.
“Some of what was done, in many cases what was not done, during the missing women’s investigations, is simply incomprehensible," Oppal said at a news conference in downtown Vancouver.
The report outlines 63 official recommendations, including a call for the B.C. government to establish a Greater Vancouver police force, a compensation fund for the children of the missing and murdered women, and a healing fund for their families. Other steps include a call for missing person standards to be strengthened, including the creation of a provincial 1-800 phone number for missing person reports.
Oppal also identifies what he calls a “systemic bias” in the police response to the women that went missing from the Downtown Eastside, which he says allowed faulty stereotyping of street-involved women in the area to negatively impact police investigations of disappearances, and contributed to a failure to prioritize and effectively investigate the cases.]
"The women were poor, they were addicted, vulnerable, aboriginal," Oppal told reporters and families of missing women present at the news conference. "They did not receive equal treatment from the police. As a group, they were dimissed."
"I recognize that systemic bias was not intentional—by that I mean that many police officers were working conscientiously," he added. "However, as a system, they failed because of the bias."
The commission of inquiry was launched by the B.C. government in 2010 to examine the investigations conducted by the Vancouver Police Department and the RCMP between January 1997 and February 2002 of women reported missing from the Downtown Eastside.
Pickton was arrested in 2002 and convicted in the second degree murders of six women in 2007. The DNA or remains of 33 women were found on his Port Coquitlam farm, and he once told an undercover police officer he had killed a total of 49 women.
The commission was also mandated to examine why charges against Pickton were stayed in 1998 after a sex worker escaped a violent incident at his farm.
Oppal concluded that “there were serious limitations” on the initial investigation of that incident by the Coquitlam RCMP in 1997.
“The likelihood that the assault on Ms. Anderson was not a ‘one-off’ was clear, and thus it was patently unreasonable that the investigation was not pursued more fully at that time,” Oppal wrote in his report. “That evidence together with the earlier incident of sexual assault relating to Pickton were crucial facts that were completely ignored.”
Members of Downtown Eastside groups held a vigil outside the downtown building where the report was released today, and interjected by drumming and singing during Oppal's comments. The missing women inquiry has been subject to controversy from the beginning, including criticism from aboriginal and Downtown Eastside advocacy groups about the terms of reference, which they argued were too narrow. Over a dozen groups boycotted the process after the B.C. government announced they would not fund legal representation for advocacy groups at the inquiry.
In a press conference following Oppal’s comments, B.C. Minister of Justice and Attorney General Shirley Bond said the B.C. government will implement steps including the appointment of former lieutenant-governor Steven Point as chair of an advisory committee to ensure “community perspectives are kept at the forefront” during the response to the recommendations. Bond also announced $750,000 in funding to allow the Wish Drop-In Centre to expand the hours of service it provides to sex-trade workers, and acknowledged Oppal’s recommendation for safer transportation options in northern British Columbia, including along Highway 16.
“We will identify any improvements that can be made, and I assure you, we will continue to look for specific ways to support greater safety and awareness along Highway 16,” she said.
When asked about Oppal's recommendation for a regional police force, Bond said the idea is "very timely".
"I think the concept of what that might look like deserves further discussion, and certainly I’ve always been willing to sit down with mayors in the Vancouver area to talk about that," she said.
Bond also addressed the families of missing and murdered directly as she fought back tears.
“There is no way to undo what has already been done, despite my wishing that was possible,” she said. “That fact for me as a mother, a sister, and a grandmother, and as someone who wants to lead real change, has been the most difficult part of reviewing this report.”
Other recommendations outlined by Oppal in his report include calls for the provincial government to fund additional full-time sex trade liaison officers in the Lower Mainland, for the City of Vancouver to create and fund two community-based liaison positions for individuals who have experience in the survival sex trade, for the Vancouver Police Department to establish a position of aboriginal liaison officer to help with interactions with the missing persons unit, and for the B.C. minister of justice to establish a working group to develop “enhanced legislative protection” for exploited women.