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January 18, 2013

Missing Women – Missing Voices: The Final Report of Missing Women Commission of Inquiry and its Discontents

by Garth Mullins

Missing & Murdered Women

Just before Christmas, the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry (MWCI) released its Final Report, "Forsaken," at a crowded press conference. Copies were snapped up. Cameras jockeyed for position. Commissioner Wally Oppal told reporters, community members and families that “women had been twice forsaken: first by society at large and then again by police.”

Would this report forever change policing in BC? Radically alter life on the Downtown Eastside? Or, was it, as some have argued, the bare minimum a friend of the governing party could get away with?

The Issue

After years of agitation and lobbying, in 2010, a Commission was struck to look into police failings of BC’s missing and murdered women between 1997 and 2002 – a small slice of this decades long epidemic.

Some 70 or more women disappeared off the streets of the Downtown Eastside, Canada’s poorest postal code, or vanished from a lonely stretch of Highway 16, a thin ribbon of pavement snaking through northern mountains, aboriginal communities and mine sites between Prince George and Prince Rupert, BC. Across Canada there are over 600 such cases.

The MWCI looked at why serial killer Robert Pickton was not charged in 1998 with an attempted murder for which he was caught, literally, with blood on his hands. This could have saved the lives of those he subsequently killed before being jailed in 2002. Pickton boasted of killing 49.

The Hearings

I attended many of the hearings. The public gallery was mostly empty, save for a few reporters and some family members that were there every day. A large poster of the missing women was at the front. As you entered, security would remind you to hang up your coat and remove your hat. Everyone was supposed to stand when the Commissioner entered or exited. But it was respect for the families that I wanted to show. I was there bear witness.

For days and days, family members took the stand, recalling their loved ones and the frustration they felt when trying to report them missing. Police were rude and dismissive, saying that there’s no need to worry; their loved one is probably just off partying, or on a sea cruise.

The testimony was raw. There were always tears. Boxes of tissue were set out around room.

On many days, from down in the street eight floors below, the sound of community members drumming and singing, speaking-out and chanting floated up to the hearing room.

I remember the Downtown Eastside of the late 1990s - before it was even called that. There were rumors of a party barn and warnings to stay away. There was incredibly pure heroin; hardly any services. I remember the feeling of community and the us-and-them policing. And I remembered one woman in particular, there, and suddenly gone.

I only realized years later what had happened.

During the long hearing days, tension often sparked between Wally Oppal and Cameron Ward, lawyer for most of the family members. There were fights over insufficient time to cross-examine witnesses, over who was to testify and when – the uncertainty making it preparation almost impossible.

Ward said too much time was given to police officers who drove a desk and wrote reports, rather than the front line officers who took missing persons reports or conducted investigations. Important witnesses were hurried through their testimony and grouped together in panels, making a thorough examination difficult.

It follows that the Final Report is vague when it comes to police accountability. Policing is generally criticized. A few individual cops are praised, but not one chief of senior officer is held responsible. Oppal told reporters they could “look up who was in charge back then.”

The Critics

Although the Commission focused on women in the Downtown Eastside, their voices were marginalized from the proceedings.

Most community groups withdrew early on in the process due to a lack of funding for lawyers, document disclosure issues, lack of confidence in protections for vulnerable witnesses still working in the sex trade and narrow terms of reference. Finally, as a former senior member of the provincial government, Wally Oppal appeared to be in a conflict of interest. His party was in power during many of the murders.

One of the groups that did not leave was the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users. VANDU’s Ann Livingston doggedly attended the hearings.

Three of the organizations that withdrew - BC Civil Liberties Association, Pivot Legal Society and West Coast LEAF - called the Inquiry a “failure” in a report released just before the MWCI’s findings.

According to Darcie Bennett of Pivot Legal Society, “this Inquiry presented an opportunity to hear from marginalized women about their lives, and how to make them safer, and it didn’t.”

The MWCI report may lead to some reforms and the inquiry process itself provided a platform for a wider discussion. But real change comes from below.

The Findings

The Commission’s last act - the press conference for the release of the Final Report - was raucous; Oppal’s remarks were frequently disrupted by drumming and heckling.

According to Oppal, police investigations of missing women were “blatant failures”; that there is police bias against sex trade workers in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES); that cases fell through the cracks between Metro Vancouver’s many police forces; there should be one regional force, and; that a serial killer should have been prosecuted earlier, preventing subsequent killings.

The commission made “findings of fact,” about poverty, terrible housing, food insecurity, limited access to health services, drug addiction, risky behavior to avoid being dope sick and “entrenchment”- women are stuck in the DTES. Facts already well known and documented in the DTES.

There were specific recommendations to the BC government: [re]fund sex worker drop-in centers; improve transpiration on the “Highway of Tears” in the north of BC, along which many aboriginal women have gone missing; appoint a provincial “champion” to implement government response to the MWCI; establish a healing fund; compensate children of the murdered women; help officers “refrain from discriminatory policing”; insure police warn community members of serial killers; improve Crown prosecutors’ treatment of vulnerable or drug-addicted witnesses, and; form one regional police force.

Where Now?

Community groups are now calling for a national public inquiry or a UN report into the missing women across Canada.

Oppal said the women had been failed twice: by society and the police. Critics might add a third failing, that of the Inquiry itself.

Garth Mullins is a writer, long-time social justice activist and three-chord propagandist, living in East Vancouver. Follow him @garthmullins on Twitter.