The following editorial appeared in the Victoria Times-Colonist of March 7, 2012:
“An abrupt resignation has shaken the Missing Women Inquiry in Vancouver. Robyn Gervais, a Métis lawyer appointed to represent aboriginal people at the proceedings, has quit in disgust.
The inquiry was set up in 2010 to investigate how serial murderer Willie Pickton managed to conduct a decade-long reign of terror before he was caught.
Pickton was eventually convicted of killing six women at his pig farm in Port Coquitlam. The Crown then elected to stay a further 20 murder charges.
But it is believed the number of women Pickton killed approaches 50, many of them aboriginal sex-trade workers.
When retired B.C. attorney general Wally Oppal was asked to lead the inquiry, one of his first acts was to appoint Gervais. It was her job to ensure First Nations groups got a hearing.
But on Monday, Gervais told Oppal she was through. Although she cited lack of support from the aboriginal community, her main complaint went to the heart of the process.
She feels the hearings are being dominated by law-enforcement agencies. Of the 53 days of testimony so far, close to 40 have been taken over by police officers and their lawyers. And though she did not say so, some of this testimony has been offensively self-justifying.
Meanwhile community and aboriginal groups, who cannot afford lawyers to represent them, have gone largely unheard. The result, Gervais believes, is a lopsided inquiry that has little chance of finding the truth.
These are powerful complaints, and all the more so given the context. One reason Pickton got away with it so long was the voiceless, invisible place in society his victims occupied. It is deeply troubling that their plight lives on at this inquiry.
That said, there is another aspect to this dilemma that must be considered. Oppal has been given the power to bring a finding of misconduct against any individual he deems culpable.
In the circumstances, police officers are the obvious targets. Moreover, it is entirely possible that a finding of misconduct could lead to civil or criminal charges.
This has actually happened on occasion. The 1993 Krever Inquiry into the tainted-blood scandal led to criminal charges against senior public officials.
So it was a foregone conclusion, when Oppal was given such wide latitude, that the Vancouver police agencies would “lawyer up.” And offensive as some of their posturing has been, that also was to be expected. Given the inquiry’s mandate, anything approaching an admission of guilt could have serious legal consequences.
But was such a mandate ever in doubt? If Oppal had been told to stick to fact-finding, and avoid any suggestion of misconduct, there would have been allegations of a whitewash.
The real mistake, if one was made, occurred before Oppal was even appointed. The government wanted a quick, cost-limited inquiry that would cover the main points, but avoid bogging down. For that reason, most community groups were refused funding to hire legal representation.
Fears about cost overruns are understandable: There is a long history of inquiries in Canada going on forever and running up huge bills. The Krever commission took four years, and burned through $15 million in lawyers’ fees.
But that is the nature of the beast. You either want an inquiry or you don’t. There is no halfway measure. At least, there is none that will satisfy anyone.
Oppal is a sensible man. It’s unlikely the parade of uniformed officers and their lawyers carries much weight with him. It may indeed harden his views about what went wrong.
But appearances are another matter. By trying to rush this inquiry through, and skimp on resources, the government has defeated the whole purpose — to ensure that justice is seen to be done.”
© Copyright (c) The Victoria Times Colonist