Province undermining missing women inquiry

It might be time to pull the plug on the public inquiry into missing and murdered women.

It might be time to pull the plug on the public inquiry into missing and murdered women.

The Liberal government’s support for the inquiry, headed by former attorney general Wally Oppal, has always been suspect.

Even when police joined the widespread calls for an independent review, the government dragged its feet.

Now Premier Christy Clark and Attorney General Barry Penner are undermining the inquiry. They have overruled Oppal’s decisions on what’s required to make it an effective, thorough review of how Robert Pickton could prey on women for years.

Oppal heard applications from individuals and groups that wanted standing at the hearings – the right to review documents, question witnesses, provide evidence and respond to the testimony.

He narrowed the list to 13 groups, and recommended the government provide funding for their legal costs. He was only seeking funding for those groups who were needed to get answers and had “satisfied me that they would not be able to participate fully without financial support,” Oppal said.

Penner said no, and Clark has supported the position despite Oppal’s pleas for reconsideration.

The government can’t afford the legal costs, they say.

The commission will have lawyers. Perhaps they can look after the interests of the groups. (The government will pay for one lawyer for the families of Pickton’s victims.)

Five of the 13 groups have already pulled out of the inquiry, including the Native Women’s Association of Canada and WISH, a drop-in centre for Downtown Eastside sex workers.

Penner’s concerns about costs are understandable. Inquiries can become expensive.

Except his concern about costs extends only those representing the victims and other missing women.

Those groups can be expected to have an interest in, and knowledge of, the factors – police and political indifference, racism, poverty, lack of social supports – that might have played a role in allowing Pickton to kill for years.

Police officers called before the inquiry will have publicly funded lawyers. Any politicians, past or present, who might be called to testify, or even mentioned in the course of the inquiry, will have taxpayer-funded lawyers. So will government employees.

But Clark isn’t suggesting those people should rely on the commission’s lawyers.

If the concern is costs, and Penner really believes that it’s adequate to have the commission’s lawyers ensure fairness and a thorough examination of the facts, then he should provide a level playing field. That means no public funding for anyone involved.

Penner won’t do that. He is prepared to provide legal funding for those with power, but not for those without it. They are, like the missing women, second class.

It’s not just the groups. Kim Rossmo is a former Vancouver police officer whose warnings that a serial killer was at work were ignored. He is a professor in Texas now and was to be an important witness at the inquiry.

But the government has also refused to pay for legal representation for Rossmo. Other officers will have taxpayer-paid lawyers to question him, review documents on their behalf and protect their interests. He is expected to pay for his own lawyer.

The inquiry’s credibility is rapidly being eroded. On Friday, the Native Women’s Association of Canada called for a federal inquiry.

“The government of B.C. has shut us out of the British Columbia Missing Women Commission of Inquiry, and now we have no confidence that it will be able to produce a fair and balanced report,” president Jeannette Corbiere.

“The decision of the B.C. government to restrict funding for counsel primarily to police and government agencies demonstrates how flawed and one sided this process has become.”

This inquiry should be important. Scores of women disappeared; dozens were killed. The institutions that were supposed to protect all citizens failed them. Without an inquiry, we won’t know what went wrong – and whether women continue to be killed.

But the government is undermining before work even starts.

Footnote: Penner also says the groups might be able to participate in less formal hearings that will be held in conjunction with the inquiry. But again, he has not explained why these groups should be denied full participation in the inquiry, as Oppal has recommended, while the legal representation to allow police and politicians to participate is fully funded.