Groups urge premier to save embattled Pickton inquiry
Published Thursday, September 29, 2011 6:57AM EDT
VANCOUVER - A powerful coalition that includes family members of Robert Pickton's victims is warning B.C. Premier Christy Clark that the missing women inquiry is in serious jeopardy of failing before it has even started.
In an open letter to the premier dated Wednesday, three dozen groups or individuals are asking Clark to appoint a senior government official who can help "fix" the inquiry.
One of the biggest issues remains the lack of legal funding for all but a few of those granted standing at the inquiry.
The coalition wants the government to pay for the legal fees of all the groups granted standing so lawyers can "probe and engage" any evidence introduced during the inquiry.
"These are groups whose participation, whose perspective is essential to ensuring that the commission grapples with its work in a full and complete manner," said Alex Neve, secretary general for Amnesty International Canada, which has been granted limited standing at the inquiry.
"Many of these are front-line service groups that have better understanding than almost anyone as to how these issues play out on a daily basis in the vulnerable communities who were so dramatically impacted by this particular violence..."
Commissioner Wally Oppal appointed two independent lawyers in August to represent the interests of Downtown Eastside residents and aboriginal women, ordering them to take guidance from the participant groups that were denied government funding.
Attorney General Shirley Bond indicated Wednesday nothing would change.
She issued a statement reiterating a previous announcement the government made in May which said the government would only pay for the legal costs of the families of Pickton's victims.
"Given the budget challenges that the ministry is facing, we have made our priority funding legal counsel for the families of the murdered and missing women," she said in the statement.
The coalition, which sees the inquiry as an opportunity to pursue truth and reconciliation, has given the premier one week to respond to the demand, although it does not suggest what might happen if the deadline passes without action.
Neve said his organization will have to consider pulling out of the inquiry if the province doesn't provide the requested funding.
"We're giving that very serious consideration right now," he said. "Obviously, we're hopeful that the government's going to respond to this letter."
Amnesty International Canada wouldn't be the first to make such a decision.
On Sept. 20, the Pivot Legal Society withdrew from the inquiry because the government refused to help pay for the legal counsel for sex-worker organizations.
More than half a dozen organizations made similar decisions earlier in the summer.
The inquiry is scheduled to begin in Vancouver on Oct. 11. It will examine police conduct and the Pickton investigation, including why the former pig farmer wasn't stopped sooner from murdering women from the Downtown Eastside.
"One of the biggest points in all of this is that without legal representation you can't cross-examine," said Kate Gibson, executive director of the Women's Education and Safe House.
"Who, in all of us, is going to be able to go through a million pages of documents and check references and figure out strategies for getting to the bottom of matters and not have matters brushed over?"
Gibson said for the inquiry to work, the groups granted standing must be able to participate.
She said she feels like her organization is "always grovelling and scrambling," and many people mistakenly believe that her organization and its members are trying to benefit personally from any funding.
Not a penny of any funding would support her organization's operations, she added, noting little appears to have changed since Pickton targeted his victims.
"The unfortunate part is that nobody was listening then and actually in so many ways nobody is listening now and I think that that's really tragic," said Gibson.
Kasari Govender, executive director of the West Coast Legal Education and Action Fund, said the groups are looking for about $1.5 million in funding for legal counsel, which she said is a small amount of money in the overall context of the inquiry.
"If the inquiry goes ahead without any of these groups participating and without looking at any of the other systemic problems that are happening within the processes of the inquiry...what's going to happen is that the result is going to be thoroughly unsatisfactory," she said.
Chris Freimond, spokesman for the commission, declined to comment on the coalitions' letter or Bond's response.
However, he said this past July that Oppal "would prefer that all groups that have been given standing were able to participate, and it's disappointing that funding wasn't provided."
"We don't have anything more to add to that," Freimond said Wednesday.