Oppal heads inquiry into Robert Pickton case
Former British Columbia attorney general and B.C. Court of Appeal justice Wally Oppal stops briefly to speak to reporters after being named to head the Pickton inquiry in Vancouver, B.C., on Tuesday September 28, 2010. (Darryl Dyck / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
The Canadian Press
Published Tuesday, September 28, 2010 6:00PM EDT
VANCOUVER - A former B.C. attorney general and Appeal Court judge who has also conducted a past inquiry into policing in the province has been named to head the probe into the investigation of serial killer Robert Pickton.
But the appointment of Wally Oppal and his terms of reference prompted immediate criticism, with activists complaining Oppal's recent past as a cabinet minister diminishes the likelihood his recommendations will find fault with the government.
"I think he'll do a good job because I know him, I know his work," said David Eby, executive director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association.
"But lots of members of the public don't and a public inquiry is meant to restore public confidence."
Activists were also unhappy that Oppal's inquiry is not tasked with looking into the broader issues of poverty and access to social services that allow marginalized women to plummet down a slippery slope of drug addiction and survival sex, landing hard on the Downtown Eastside where they are vulnerable to predators.
Instead, those questions will be addressed in a separate process headed by the Native Women's Association of Canada, which has agreed to begin a consultation with aboriginal groups.
Their work will culminate in a national conference in B.C. next year.
"These are long-standing, complex and wide-ranging issues that will be addressed and discussed with aboriginal leaders," Attorney General Mike de Jong said in announcing Oppal's appointment on Tuesday.
"It is, after all, a national issue and a national challenge."
De Jong said his government wanted to create a different format to consider the broader issues and to ensure aboriginal groups are directly involved.
Oppal's job is to focus on what went wrong in the investigation.
"The most difficult question of all is why a serial murderer was able to prey on his victims for so long while so many women went missing and ultimately were murdered," de Jong said at a news conference.
Oppal will also study the actions of Crown prosecutors who stayed charges against Pickton in 1998 after he was arrested for attacking a woman in his trailer.
Families of many of the 26 victims Pickton was later charged with killing say his spree could have been stopped then.
All six women that Pickton was convicted of killing went missing after the 1998 charges were stayed.
"It is my hope that the inquiry will recommend changes to how investigations into missing women and suspected multiple homicides are conducted in the future," said de Jong.
"It will pay particular attention to police investigations involving multiple investigative agencies."
Pickton was arrested Feb. 2, 2002 and was eventually charged with murdering 26 women. His case proceeded to trial on only six of the charges, with plans that the further 20 would be prosecuted later.
But after a trial that lasted a year, then attorney general Oppal said there was little to be gained by trying Pickton on the remaining 20.
He said at the time that Pickton was already serving the maximum sentence under Canadian law.
It was a controversial decision supported by some victim's families and abhorred by others.
It's one of the reasons why Eby maintains Oppal is not the right choice to leave the inquiry.
"He was very outspoken that he wasn't sure we could learn anything from a public inquiry. He was involved in the decision not to advance the charges against the 20 remaining women found on Pickton's farm. He was very connected with the Crown counsel office and also with this current government.
"When you put all those things together, people could legitimately ask the question: Will there be a problem here?"
Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, said there is a problem.
"I think they could have made a better choice," he said, adding he's not happy.
"There are just too many instances where there's a perception of a conflict and having too close of involvement in this issue to give any great deal of comfort."
However, Ernie Crey, an aboriginal leader with the Sto:lo Nation, said he was comfortable with Oppal's appointment.
Crey's sister's DNA was among the remains found on Pickton's farm but for whom charges were never laid.
"The first hurdle was getting a public inquiry and that's what we've got," he said.
"Maybe, Wally Oppal is not popular with everyone but it's not a popularity contest. I think he's a competent man. I think he'll conduct a responsible and thorough review and that he'll produce a report that's helpful for all of us in the end."
Crey said he was disappointed that the wider issues of poverty and access to social services were being hived off into a separate process.
But he said he's hopeful that the provincial and federal governments will pay attention to the results of the consultative process with the Native Women's Association.
Kate Rexe, a director with the Native Women's Association of Canada, said the organization welcomes the opportunity to look into issues that impact so many First Nations women, including violence, lack of access to justice, economic security and child welfare.
"It is a much larger issue than simply an inquiry or the justice system can address in a small fashion through an inquiry," she said.
Rexe said NWAC hasn't yet decided how to structure such a process, but the key is they want to get input from families of missing and murdered women.
"In many ways we do believe that there's a lot of information that's already known. I think that's what's missing is that women's families and communities don't necessarily feel their voices have been heard."
The B.C. government has agreed to pay the bill, Rexe said, but it's also looking for partners in the costs because the problem spans all of Canada. She couldn't guess at the cost.
Rexe said their concern with an inquiry that costs millions is there may not be follow-up money to implement recommendations afterwards.
Oppal has until Dec. 31, 2011 to submit a final report to de Jong.
He was unfazed by criticism that he's too close to the current government, saying: "I won't hesitate to criticize people who need to be criticized."
De Jong said the government also plans to do something to permanently commemorate the missing and murdered women.
His office will be consulting with families in an effort to come to a decision about what would be appropriate.
"Let me take a moment and say to the families again of the victims, families that themselves are victims, that no one can truly understand what you've been through," de Jong said.
"It's our intention that this public inquiry will give you many of the answers that you are seeking as to what happened and why as is possible.
"We wish to work with you and speak with you about your thoughts on the most appropriate way to offer that permanent commemoration."