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.