The last shreds of credibility of the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry are in question and aboriginal interests are now barely represented after two significant withdrawals from the process this week.
Robyn Gervais, a Métis lawyer who was appointed by inquiry commissioner Wally Oppal to represent aboriginal interests, announced on March 5 that she was withdrawing.
“Despite 38 days of police testimony the commission has yet to hear from an aboriginal witness,” Gervais said of the 53-day-old inquiry, adding that “the delay in calling aboriginal witnesses, the failure to provide adequate hearing time for aboriginal panels, the ongoing lack of support from the aboriginal community and the disproportionate focus on police evidence” are culminating to ensure that aboriginal interests have not and will not be adequately represented in the proceedings.
The inquiry commenced in 2011, tasked with examining why it took so long to catch serial killer Robert Pickton, who was ultimately convicted of murdering six women on his pig farm in Port Coquitlam, British Columbia, outside of Vancouver. He confessed to an undercover police officer that he killed 49 more. The DNA of 33 women was found on his property.
Aboriginal women accounted for most of Pickton's victims.
Gervais said her point of no return came when she tried to organize obtaining testimony from aboriginal participants and to question police officials. Commission officials responded by telling her that she would be afforded one day in April and some more time in May at a policy forum, which wouldn't be in a federal court and under oath, she said.
"Given that these hearings are largely about missing and murdered aboriginal women, I feel I shouldn't have to fight to have the voices of the aboriginal heard," Gervais said. "As I leave this inquiry, I regret that I could not find a way to bring the voices of the missing and murdered aboriginal women before the commissioner."
Oppal said he was disappointed at her departure.
“I don’t think it’s productive at all if someone withdraws from an inquiry that’s going to make some recommendation,” he responded, according to the Canadian Press. “By not having you at the table, your voice is not being heard.”
Gervais said she wanted to examine the issue of systemic racism within police forces and look at why aboriginal women ended up in such a vulnerable position on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. However, the focus of the commission isn't on such issues, but rather on the police investigation itself, Oppal said.
Nevertheless, Gervais’s departure enraged Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs leader Stewart Phillip.
“This is not an inquiry about missing and murdered police officers, it’s an inquiry about missing and murdered women, a disproportionate number of whom are First Nations,” Phillip told the Canadian Press. “Most say they’d do the same thing over again. How is that accountability or taking responsibility?”
The development was followed by the nearly simultaneous withdrawal of the B.C. First Nations Summit, the lone aboriginal group participating in the inquiry after several dropped out last year due to the province's refusal to fund groups' legal expenses. The summit provides a forum and advocacy for tribes and tribal councils in B.C. that are involved in the B.C. Treaty Process.
“The fears expressed by our chiefs and leaders from the outset of this process have been confirmed,” Grand Chief Edward John said in a news release.
Given Gervais’s withdrawal, “we feel we cannot continue to participate,” he said. “Effective today, we withdraw from participation in this inquiry.”
The withdrawal of Gervais and the First Nations Summit to all intents and purposes voids the inquiry, victim family member Ernie Crey said.
“It leaves a few lawyers representing the families, and a dozen or so lawyers representing the cops,” said Crey, whose sister’s murder is attributed to Pickton, though a body was never found. “I am not sure the public cares to listen to a bunch of cops rewriting history about how professionally they handled the Pickton investigation.”
The inquiry is now like a ship with no rudder, he said, and where it goes from here or ends up is anyone’s guess.
“Oppal has nothing left to work with,” Crey told Indian Country Today Media Network by telephone. “And the B.C. Premier, Christie Clark, is too busy desperately treading water to care much about the Inquiry.”
The pullouts could have been avoided if government had agreed to fund legal representation for Downtown Eastside, aboriginal and impoverished groups the same way they underwrote the legal tab for police involved in the inquiry to lawyer up, Crey said.
The British Columbia government’s attitude toward the inquiry has been plain from the beginning. Clark addressed the First Nations Summit in 2011 when the inquiry was announced.
“There are too many aboriginal women who are subject to violence and much, much worse,” she said in her address. “It is tragic. I frankly don't believe that solutions will necessarily be found most effectively in courtrooms. I don't think that the money is necessarily best spent on lawyers. I think the solutions will be found by providing real services to real people who are living with violence every day on the front lines and in the streets of our towns and cities.”