by Jarrah Hodge
Yesterday’s release of the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry report was an emotional event that did little to guarantee justice for victims.
I haven’t yet been able to do an in-depth reading of the over 1400-page report produced by Commissioner Wally Oppal after over a year of hearings and deliberations, but I can talk about the problems with the process and about what I saw watching the livestream of Oppal’s news conference.
Over the hour, Oppal was interrupted over and over by victims’ families and Indigenous women, shouting down his claim that everyone had had their voice heard during the inquiry, and at one point breaking into a “Women’s Warrior” song and drumming. It was a powerful moment to see Oppal be silenced, even briefly, by the women who had been silenced during this whole process.
In the Spring of this year, several community and advocacy organizations joined in a coalition to boycott the inquiry, calling it a “deeply flawed and illegitimate process” after funding was denied to the 13 groups granted any standing in the inquiry. The groups spoke out over and over again on other major issues with the Inquiry, including the failure to provide lawyers for community groups when lawyers were provided to protect police and government interests, arbitrary timelines, delayed and incomplete disclosure, unwillingness to give enough time to Aboriginal witnesses, marginalization of vulnerable witnesses and lack of witness protection for them.
These are not all groups that usually see eye-to-eye on every issue but they could all agree on how fundamentally flawed the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry was, and on the need for a national public inquiry into the hundreds of murders and disappearances of Aboriginal women and girls. In their media release after yesterday’s conference the coalition wrote:
There is a glaring and outstanding need for a full and thorough examination of the systemic factors that underpin the issue of missing and murdered women and girls- the deep sexism, poverty, racism, and colonialism. There is also a need, that is tragically evident, for the Province to work with the families and community organizations to make real change. The alarming and disproportionately high rate of Aboriginal girls and women that continue to go missing and be murdered must be addressed. We cannot continue to lose our daughters, sisters, wives, mothers, and aunts.
I don’t want to totally write off the report and its potential significance. Like I said, it’s a long report and it’s still being reviewed by community groups and government. We won’t know exactly what the recommendations mean, and how likely they are to be put into practice, and to what extent, for a little while.
I can say that among his defenses of the process and seeming bending over backwards to absolve police officers of individual responsibility by stating he thought their bias must’ve been unconscious, Oppal said a lot of things that made sense yesterday.
He concluded there was “systemic bias” by police against women during the investigation and said the women “did not receive equal treatment” due to their gender, race, status as sex workers, and often their addiction issues. He recognized the disappearance of so many women would have been treated differently had the women come from a more affluent neighbourhood. He slammed the VPD for its utter failure to live up to its obligation to warn women in the Downtown Eastside about a possible serial killer.
Even though such issues could’ve been seen as outside his terms of reference, Oppal cited inadequate problems with poverty, housing and food insecurity, and lack of access to physical and mental health care as contributing problems. He talked about systemic racism, about poverty.
But what gives cause for anger is that this is the same stuff that Indigenous women, victims’ families, community groups, and their allies had been saying – crying out – for years. Women started being taken in the 1980s and major investigative blunders began as early as 1997. Now, 15 years and 67 lives later, we had to sit and listen to a government insider tell us what we already knew and accept that somehow this knowledge was now more legitimate. As Robyn Bourgeois said in The Huffington Post today:
The truth of the matter is these marginalized women have been among the leaders in the battle for justice for the Missing Women. These “forsaken women,” “nobodies,” and “sex trade workers” have a long history of organizing politically and demanding that someone answer for the violence experienced not only by the Missing Women, but also generally by the marginalized women of the Downtown Eastside.
Marlene George of the Women’s Memorial March Committee was interviewed in the Tyee and she said she’s disappointed with the report:
“As an Indigenous woman, every day, our people are experiencing that sexism and racism that’s being played out… Everything will remain status quo, as it has in the past and as it will in the future, unless there is some real change to come, not from just within the people of the Downtown Eastside… but for every single person in the province. They have to put violence against women and girls at the forefront of their thinking.”
Also, talking about systemic inequalities is important but not as a way to avoid holding specific institutions accountable. In the Vancouver Sun, Ian Mulgrew put it well:
Yes, most of us should shoulder some blame for society’s inequalities. But in this case, the media and the community clamoured for police to wake up and they were not just ignored, their fears and concerns were discounted and ridiculed. It’s disingenuous to use long-standing social inequities to muddy the issue of institutional responsibility and the failure of government in this specific case.