British Columbia's Attorney General Shirley Bond has pledged to implement “systemic changes” after the release of the highly critical Missing Women Commission of Inquiry's final report, which concluded that police bias against indigenous women led to “colossal failure” in investigating the province's largest-ever serial killer case.
The inquiry's head, Wally Oppal—who once held Bond's seat, overseeing the controversial dropping of all but six attempted murder charges against serial killer Robert Pickton—released his nearly 1,500-page missing women inquiry report at a press conference on Monday December 17. He recommended merging regional police forces, increasing women's shelter funding and appointing an advocate to ensure that the measures were implemented.
“I have come to conclusion that there was systemic bias by the police,” Oppal said. “It was important for me to understand the underlying causes of police failures. The women were poor—they were addicted, vulnerable, aboriginal. They did not receive equal treatment by police. As a group, they were dismissed. They were treated as throwaways.”
Community and aboriginal organizations responded to the findings with swift criticism, saying that few of Oppal's suggestions would actually change the system without the groups’ input, and restating their outrage at the province’s denial of legal funding for them to participate in the inquiry.
“It's a Band-Aid solution,” said Marlene George, who serves on the Women's Memorial March Committee, which sponsors commemoration events regarding the hundreds of aboriginal women across Canada who have been murdered or gone missing. “There has to be real money put behind those ideas, for drug treatment centers and supportive housing.”
At the press conference, Bond announced that former Lieutenant-Governor Steven Point has been named as the province's “champion” to ensure implementation of the fixes to the system, as well as to act as a liaison with the community. Point is also former Chief of B.C.'s Skowkale First Nation and the ex-tribal chair of the Stó:l? Nation.
“Today we are taking immediate action,” Bond said. “I want to assure the families and friends of victims, as well as all British Columbians, that our government will use the recommendations in this report to make changes and protect vulnerable women in our province. These will not happen overnight; we have a long journey ahead of us. It has taken years to get to this place, but I am hopeful that we can move forward together.”
Oppal told the gathered crowd of reporters, politicians and victims' families that he had heard concerns and made strong recommendations, speaking over the thumping protest of drums, Native song and Downtown Eastside women heckling: “What a lie!” and, “Women's organizations were shut out!”
Ruling that a “history of unlearned lessons” led to “critical police failures” in the Pickton investigation—such as ignoring reports that women were missing, rejecting information from witnesses and informants, and failing to cooperate across jurisdictions—Oppal titled his report “Forsaken.”
“These missing and murdered women were forsaken twice,” he told reporters, “Once by society, and once by police.”
He dismissed criticism from community organizations, saying they need to get behind his report's recommendations.
“If we're going to accomplish meaningful change, it's not going to come from arguing amongst ourselves,” Oppal added. “We have suffered, as a community, the loss.”
The report exceeded the expectations of Ernie Crey, Senior Policy Advisor at Stó:l? Tribal Council. He was one of many murdered women's family members who fought for years for an inquiry into why Pickton was not caught sooner; the DNA of his sister, Dawn, was found on the killer's farm.
“For families, the report was very important to them,” he told Indian Country Today Media Network. “They've lived in a state of tension and grief for the better part of a decade now; for them and me, so much was riding on this inquiry.”
Just seeing the report assembled and released was a major accomplishment, he emphasized.
“We had to fight to get it in the first place,” Crey said. “The government had no interest in this inquiry, but we were successful in changing the government's mind. Today, we got to see the results of our efforts. It was a left, right and upper-cut delivered to policing agencies for their terrible failures.”
He expressed the hope that this positive aspect not be overlooked.
“I'm not blind to the issues and concerns of some of the groups in the Downtown Eastside that didn't get to take part in inquiry for lack of funding to hire legal counsel,” Crey said. “They felt slighted and excluded, I understand their anger and disappointment.”
Crey added that there is no such thing as a perfect solution.
But for me, government is never going to come out with the perfect set of arrangements that everyone will agree on,” he said. “It falls to people like us and others to constantly remind the government of these recommendations—not at some distant time in future, but steadily over the weeks and months to come.”