From its inception, the Murdered and Missing Women Inquiry had its problems. The first concern raised by Aboriginal women’s groups and groups working with sex workers was the choice of Wally Oppal, former Liberal Attorney General, as the inquiry’s commissioner, given his political ties to some of the key witnesses. There was also controversy about the limited terms of reference, which specified the inquiry was only to focus on events from 1997 to Pickton’s arrest in 2002.
But even if you thought Oppal could be impartial as a commissioner or you’ve been convinced since he took the job, it’s become clear that the inquiry has no chance at reaching any legitimate and useful conclusions until the government agrees to fund the 13 groups granted standing in the inquiry. The groups Oppal’s advocated for to receive funding includemany small, local groups who work with at-risk women and understand the problems with how the Pickton case and other investigations were handled.
Last month BC Liberal Attorney General Barry Penner decided Oppal had no authority to recommend funding for these groups, which has meant many have been forced to withdraw. Ian Mulgrew reported in the Vancouver Sun that it would take approximately $1.5 million to finance the groups, a relatively small amount compared to the overall cost of the case. The list of those who’ve withdrawn now includes WISH, a DTES drop-in centre for sex workers; the Union of BC Indian Chiefs; the Native Courtworker and Counselling Association; and most recently the Native Women’s Association of Canada. Other groups have also indicated they will be unable to participate in the inquiry in the longer term.
Penner is also refusing funding for counsel for Kim Rossmo, a former Vancouver police officer whose warnings of a serial killer were ignored by the department. He may not appear.
The inquiry is becoming nothing more than the Liberal government’s latest dog and pony show, though whether Barry Penner is the dog or the pony is anyone’s guess.
Last week the BC NDP called on the government to fix the funding issues: “These workers are on the front lines and have first-hand knowledge of how things can be improved for aboriginal women at-risk; however, without counsel, they’re unable to provide a submission to the inquiry,” said NDP Attorney General Critic Leonard Krog.
But the Native Women’s Association of Canada is taking it a step further, arguing that real change will require a national inquiry: “NWAC was initially concerned about the limited scope of the BC Commission of Inquiry, but chose to participate to bring forward the knowledge and expertise developed through the Sisters In Spirit initiative. NWAC is now calling for a National Inquiry to focus on the issue of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls across Canada,” read NWAC’s recent statement.
In the long run, I hope we do see a national inquiry, as proposed by NWAC. The issues leading to violence against Aboriginal women and to the lack of police interest in the cases of missing and murdered Aboriginal women go beyond the limits of the Downtown Eastside and beyond the years 1997-2002. They include systemic racism and sexism, cuts to Aboriginal services at the federal and provincial levels, federal prostitution law that puts sex workers at greater risk, and the complicated legacy of colonialism.
But at a bare minimum Christy Clark and Barry Penner need to restore legitimacy to the provincial inquiry by funding the 13 groups identified by Oppal. It’s unjust to the murdered and missing Aboriginal girls the inquiry’s supposed to represent to only fund lawyers for the victims’ families and government and police participants who will be defending their conduct during the Pickton investigation. If we want the most legitimate results for the inquiry, we need to have these experienced grassroots groups funded to provide their perspectives.