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As counsel for the families of the missing and murdered women, we have been highly critical of the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry for perpetuating many of the same prejudices that lead to the tragedy. The voices of Aboriginal women, sex workers and drug users were largely excluded from the development and conduct of this process. It was a process that preferred the views of police and government institutions over those of community groups who stood to gain the most from its outcome, and that seemed to ignore the very problems it was ostensibly called to inquire into and solve.

The Commission heard from 79 witnesses over 92 days, but failed to answer many of the primary questions to which the families and friends of the missing women have long sought answers. Did Robert Pickton act alone? Did Pickton’s family members, associates, employees, and the police know he was involved in abusing sex trade workers from the Downtown Eastside long before he was apprehended? Was the notorious Hells Angels gang involved in Pickton’s crimes to any degree, and did its involvement have anything to do with the inadequate police response? Why was more not done in response to the dozens of reports of missing women over the years?

The terms of reference have been widely criticized as being too narrow in scope, and for having been drafted without any consultation with the groups potentially most affected by this process. In our view, while the lack of prior consultation was indeed a mistake, the vaguely-worded terms of reference could have been interpreted more broadly and do not, alone, explain this inquiry’s shortcomings. Rather, the Commission actively chose to interpret the terms of reference so as to exclude from its lens institutional prejudices respecting women, Aboriginals, drug users, and sex trade workers that may have contributed to the failed investigations.

In our view, these issues could well have been explored within the ambit of the terms of reference as they were framed. To “inquire into and make findings of fact respecting the conduct of the missing women investigations” does not expressly exclude an examination of the social factors that were at play, especially within the police departments conducting those investigations. Moreover, the importance of these social factors demanded they be examined in the context of the failed missing women investigations.

Notwithstanding our criticisms of this process, the imminent release of the Commissioner’s final report is a welcome opportunity to reignite discussion about these important issues. We have reviewed and endorse the recently-released report by the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, West Coast Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund, and the Pivot Legal Society, entitled “Blueprint for an Inquiry,” and we share their sentiment that, if nothing else, this Inquiry stands as an example of what should not be done when exploring complex issues involving marginalized communities.

We will be looking for certain findings of fact and recommendations in the Commissioner’s report, which in our view, despite the shortcomings of the hearing process, ought to be made. Foremost: will the report acknowledge that systemic racism, sexism, misogyny and other forms of prejudice were prevalent within the government organizations under scrutiny at this Inquiry? Among our clients, there is a common understanding that institutional prejudices against disadvantaged women, many of whom were sex trade workers and drug users, were the primary reason Pickton was able to act with impunity. For our clients, these prejudices had a profound impact on the taking of missing person reports, the allocation of resources to the missing women investigations, the failure to warn the community, and the overall lack of concern, if not outright disdain, for their missing daughters, sisters and mothers.

To a marked degree the Commission shied away from these serious, difficult, and critical issues. So-called “expert” reports produced by police officers hired to review the failed police investigations completely denied that institutional prejudices were at play. Meanwhile, other evidence that would have suggested widespread police prejudices was ignored by the Commission. For example, the Commission declined to call former RCMP Cpl. Catherine Galliford, who has made public allegations detailing sexist and racist behaviour among members of Project Evenhanded. As well, the Commission refused to admit a book written by VPD Det. Cst. Lori Shenher describing a culture of sexism within the VPD, even towards its own female members.

To find otherwise – that systemic racism, sexism and other forms of prejudice did not play a role in the failure of the missing women investigations – would be to discount and ignore the testimony of nearly every one of our clients who took the witness stand. As well, the inquiry heard evidence that employees at all levels of the VPD, from the Chief Constable to civilian clerks, were complicit in the discriminatory conduct that impeded the missing women investigations.

It will not be enough to attribute these prejudices to specific individuals alone; these prejudices were tolerated by the entire justice system, and arguably still are today. One measure of the validity of the Commissioner’s final report will surely be the extent to which it acknowledges this problem.

Some other findings and recommendations we will be looking for in the Commissioner’s final report include the following:

  • The Criminal Justice Branch failed to handle the prosecution of Robert Pickton in 1997-1998 with the vigour and level of preparation that a case of attempted murder demanded, and used the victim’s drug use as an excuse to avoid a trial for which it was inadequately prepared.
  • The victim was eager to testify and would have been capable of taking the stand had the Crown and police provided her with the assistance routinely given in such cases.
  • VPD and RCMP senior management failed to provide oversight, leadership or accountability in relation to the missing women and Pickton investigations, and failed to provide available resources to these investigations.
  • The VPD and RCMP gave inadequate priority to the missing women and Pickton investigations in relation to arguably less serious matters involving property and drug crimes.
  • The VPD had a duty to warn the public, particularly sex trade workers, that it had evidence of a potential serial killer, but it failed to do so. This failure was unreasonable in the circumstances, and put women’s lives at risk of harm.
  • The federal and provincial governments ought to provide adequate compensation to the families of the murdered and missing women.

These and other findings and recommendations were discussed at length in our written closing submissions, a copy of which is available here.

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Update:  The government has issued a news release updating its arrangements for the families of the murdered women and facilitating their access to the Commission’s final report.

………

We have been advised that the final report of the Missing Women Commission Inquiry will be released to the public soon.  The provincial government received the 1,448 page document in November and will apparently give us, the lawyers for the families of 25 of the murdered women, an hour to read the report before it is released to the public and live-streamed on the internet.

This approach is in keeping with the Commission’s general attitude toward the families of the missing and murdered women.  The MWCI paid lip service to our clients’ concerns, but it conducted an “inquiry” that barely scratched the surface of its mandate.  That mandate, as set out in the Terms of Reference, required the Commission:

“(a) to conduct hearings, in or near the City of Vancouver, to inquire into and make findings of fact respecting the conduct of the missing women investigations;

(b) consistent with the British Columbia (Attorney General) v. Davies, 2009 BCCA 337, to inquire into and make findings of fact respecting the decision of the Criminal Justice Branch on January 27, 1998, to enter a stay of proceedings on charges against Robert William Pickton of attempted murder, assault with a weapon, forcible confinement and aggravated assault.”

The Vancouver Police Department and the RCMP knew by March 17, 1997 that Robert William Pickton had taken a survival sex trade worker (by definition, a desperate woman who would turn tricks for as little as two dollars just to survive on Vancouver’s Skid Row) to a suburb some 45 minutes away by car, where he attempted to murder her.  The police also knew that Robert William Pickton and his brother David Francis Pickton operated a notorious hangout known as “Piggy’s Palace” which was reportedly frequented by off duty police officers, members of a criminal gang and sex trade workers.  The brothers also operated an excavation business.  Scores of survival sex trade workers went missing from Vancouver until February 5, 2002, when a rookie Coquitlam RCMP member, Cst. Nathan Wells, “accidentally” discovered evidence of the murders on the Pickton brothers’ ramshackle property.

After a year long trial, Robert William Pickton was convicted of six counts of second degree murder.  The province’s Attorney General stayed twenty counts of first degree murder.  Although Pickton’s jury obviously concluded that he did not act alone, nobody else was ever tried for the murders of as many as fifty women.  The public inquiry was called after Pickton’s final appeal was dismissed by the Supreme Court of Canada.

Some things to look for in the report:

The government and the Commissioner, former Liberal Attorney General Wally Oppal Q.C., will point to the number of hearing days, witnesses and pages in the report to suggest that the inquiry was thorough and exhaustive.  We submit that the report should be read with the following points in mind:

1)  The real reason why Pickton wasn’t put on trial for attempted murder as a result of his 1997 attack.  The victim was credible, ready and willing to testify and, with standard witness management techniques, could have been put on the witness stand.  Instead, Crown Counsel dropped the case like a hot potato.

2)  The role that sexism and misogyny played in the inadequate police investigations.  The VPD had one detective on the case, who eventually quit in frustration.  She later wrote an unpublished book about her experience, in which she concluded that her male colleagues “wouldn’t have pissed on the [missing women] if they were on fire.”

3) The Coquitlam RCMP’s knowledge of the wild parties at Piggy’s Palace.  The RCMP had a long serving civilian worker within the small Coquitlam detachment who lived near the Pickton brothers and knew them intimately.  She conveyed information to RCMP members, but it wasn’t acted on.

4)  The long association between the Pickton brothers and the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club.  Former RCMP Deputy Commissioner Gary Bass testified that the RCMP routinely infilitrates and monitors the activities of the HAMC.

5)  The failure to obtain a search warrant sooner.  Cst. Wells swore an information to obtain the search warrant that snared Pickton in 2002, yet the RCMP had the same information in their hands by July of 1999.


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As reported elsewhere, the coroner’s jury at the inquest into the death Sheilah Sweatman delivered nine recommendations intended to prevent similar tragedies from recurring in the future.  Evidence at the inquest revealed that 20 other SAR volunteers and three RCMP members were present when she drowned, unable to rescue her after she became entangled in a tow truck cable.  It was apparent that the recovery endeavour was poorly planned and executed, with a series of errors leading to the tragic result.  Sheilah’s family attended all six days of the hearing, and will hopefully draw some strength and solace from findings and recommendations.

Sheilah Sweatman's family

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Theo Meiners remembered

November 5, 2012 in News

Cameron Ward, Theo Meiners, April, 2012

The ski world lost a legend recently.  Theo Meiner’s memorial tribute was held last weekend in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

……

From POWDER, September 28, 2012:

A man known for being in control while moving through some of Mother Nature’s most uncontrolled environments, Theo Meiners exuded a passion for life and stoke for skiing that made him known the world over. In a sad twist, the 59-year-old owner and operator of Alaska Rendezvous Heli-Guides fell to his death Friday of last week in the controlled confines of a convention center while in Anchorage, Alaska, for the International Snow Science Workshop.

When news hit the digital waves, members of the storied Jackson Hole Air Force immediately coalesced to honor Meiners, a longtime Air Forcer. “Guys I haven’t talked to in years called me up and told me, ‘Air Forcer down,’” said Micah Black, an old friend of Meiners from their days working as janitors at the Tsaina Lodge on Alaska’s Thompson Pass outside Valdez.

During the early-to-mid ’90s, Meiners contributed to the cowboy culture that formed the backbone of Alaska heli skiing led by Doug Coombs and Dean Cummings amongst others. He lived in the bathroom of the Tsaina while Black called a snowcave home. Those glory days atop Thompson Pass for Meiners consisted of scrubbing down the Tsaina bathroom before scoring a seat for afternoon heli bumps. He and the trailblazing group logged countless first descents in the Chugach, writing the map to the region. And Meiners was instrumental in it all. “He was always stoked,” says Black, “with a spaghetti head and meatball eyes. We lived the life together and Theo always talked about ‘technique, technique.’” Meiners eventually became the logistics manager at Valdez Heli-Guides, working for Doug and Emily Coombs from 1996 to 2000.

But Meiners influence wasn’t just felt in Alaska. He brought the skills and wisdom he learned in the Chugach back home to the Tetons while working as a patroller at Jackson’s Snow King Resort and an alpine guide for Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. “He was a mentor to me,” says former JHMR alpine guide Eric Henderson. “He was a silent giant, as you really had to prove yourself to him. But once you did, he was open to sharing all his knowledge, which was a lot. He always had my back no matter the circumstances. He just had it.” While in Jackson, Meiners continued working for the Coombs as one of their Steep Skiing Camps guides. His extensive experience analyzing snowpacks and working with clients allowed him to travel the world as a guide and patrol instructor. Eventually, Meiners was appointed National Ski Patrol Regional Avalanche Advisor for the Northern Intermountain Division.

Ultimately, his skier’s soul led him to purchase 27 acres on Thompson Pass to launch Alaska Rendezvous Heli-Guides. With the help of his daughter, Alexandra, and son, Aidan, and fellow Jackson Hole Air Forcer and longtime Coombs guide Dave Miller, he shared his ceaseless stoke with others seeking to experience the Alaska heli-ski dream.

“He loved to ski,” says Black. “He kept going. He got his place up there [Alaska Rendezvous]. But he wasn’t a hater or ever on a high horse or anything like that. He’d always say, ‘Let’s bring it home today.’ It was real, man. People came from all over the world to ski with him.”

…..

Our thoughts are with Ali, Aiden and all of Theo’s family and friends.

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We have learned from media reports that the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry has requested and received a further extension for the delivery of its final report.  The Minister of Justice’s October 25th media release is set out below:

…..

Missing Women Commission of Inquiry deadline extended

VICTORIA – Government has granted a one-month extension to allow the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry adequate time to complete the final report.

The extension, from Oct. 31, 2012 to Nov. 30, 2012, follows a written request by commissioner Wally Oppal for additional time to finalize his report, which draws on a large amount of material including evidence from 94 days of public hearings, written submissions, evidence from public policy forums, and input from community engagement forums throughout the province.

The work of all public inquiries in B.C., including the steps leading to the release of the report, is guided by the terms of the Public Inquiry Act. The act requires government to review the report to ensure it complies with the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

The public release date of the report will be determined in consultation with the commission, taking into consideration the information and privacy review and the time needed to print the report.

The commission was established in September 2010, to report on investigations into missing and murdered women in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside between January 1997 and February 2002.

To date, government has invested $8.6 million to support the work of the commission.

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