Wally Oppal, head of the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry in British Columbia, has appointed two new attorneys to address aboriginal issues in the ongoing inquiry into serial killer Robert Pickton’s unfettered murder spree in the early 2000s.
Independent co-counsel Suzette Narbonne and Elizabeth Hunt replace Robyn Gervais, who resigned as the lawyer representing aboriginal interests on March 5.
Narbonne started out with Legal Aid Manitoba and is now a sole practitioner in Gibsons, B.C., working mainly in criminal law and human rights, the commission said in a statement to the media.
Hunt, also a solo practitioner, is a member of the Kwakiutl Nation, the commission said, with practice areas including aboriginal law, in particular “treaty negotiations, residential school claims, corporate and commercial, intellectual property, wills and estates as it relates to aboriginal interests."
The commission was formed in 2010 to uncover the reasons that Pickton was able to butcher dozens of women on his pig farm outside Vancouver, many of them sex workers from the Downtown Eastside, for years without detection. Victims’ families said their concerns about their missing relatives were not taken seriously and that more lives could have been saved. The commission began with fact-finding missions to communities and has been hearing testimony since October 2011.
It does not address the wider issue of the up to 700 aboriginal women who have gone missing or been murdered over the past 20 years, their cases unsolved. But the hope was that this inquiry would shed light on the mind-set that caused it to go unchecked, and help law enforcement catch other perpetrators in a more timely fashion.
People had already called the commission a “sham inquiry,” though, because of what they felt was a lack of aboriginal representation. The police being tapped for testimony were all lawyered up, while the province of British Columbia refused to fund legal representation for aboriginal families and advocacy groups.
A recent change in format also fueled the fire, with the individual interrogatory format giving way to testimony by panel in what Oppal said was an attempt to give everyone involved a chance to speak.
With what many perceived to be such an uneven playing field, the commission was struggling for credibility even before Gervais resigned. The attorney cited delays in aboriginal testimony, the lack of credibility in the aboriginal community and what she called a disproportionate focus on police evidence. The commission suspended operations for three weeks while seeking new council. Hearings are set to resume at 9:30 a.m. on April 2, the commission said in announcing the appointments. The commission is due to finish gathering testimony by June 2 and must submit a report by the end of that month.