MISSING WOMEN COMMISSION OF INQUIRY: ANY CREDIBILITY LEFT?
This week, amongst protest and controversy, the long awaited inquiry on missing and murdered woman began. 15 or more groups pulled out due to no funding for legal counsel. These groups spent years and years lobbying for such an inquiry. It was a real victory to finally have the Commission established under the Inquiry Act of BC. With such determined, time-consuming efforts to get an inquiry, it is a very big thing for these groups to withdraw at the 11th hour.
It is an amazing thing I think that these groups want to participate in the inquiry considering the issues that have plagued it from the very beginning. The terms of reference were not what were hoped for and there was much controversy over that. Appointing Wally Oppal as the Commissioner was another point of contention, the Attorney General who refused to do the inquiry when he was asked and then further maelstrom over his perceived bias in comments he made regarding the police. Then there was the pairing down of groups who could attend as full participants and limited participants when many others wanted to be players as well. Now the funding outrage, one wonders what will be next.
How much better would this process would have been if the government had sat down with all the groups involved and worked a process, Terms of reference, generated a list of possible commissioners, and determined how much funding was available for legal counsel and how that could be distributed. In the spirit of the New Relationship, open government, all those things that make for collaborative relations. On such a big issue, one would have hoped for something better than a government imposed decision that has not met with much success as of yet.
It must be strongly noted that the families of the missing and murdered woman are at the table with one lawyer to represent them. It is very important for them to be at the table and to see this process through. They need answers, they need changes to the system and they need to know these kinds of things can never happen again. It is a shame that the Commission of Inquiry has been tainted in so many ways.
I wrote a letter to the Attorney General expressing my concerns at the lack of critical funding for groups that have invaluable insight into the matters before the commission and ask for her reconsideration. Her reply to me dated October 11, 2011 stated “The terms of reference for the inquiry were amended to include a study commission, which will ensure that interested groups and individuals have the opportunity to participate and be heard through a less formal process. All participants are able to fully participate in all aspects of the inquiry without the need for legal representation.”
While I appreciate that efforts have been made with a study Commission I would disagree that people can participate without legal counsel. The Attorney General goes on to say “In addition, the Commission has recently engaged four independent lawyers to assist groups from the Downtown Eastside and First Nations organizations; two of these lawyers are working on a pro bono basis.” Why couldn’t the AG have given the money to these other groups to hire their own lawyer instead of the government choosing their legal counsel. One only has to look at the legal nature of the process of an inquiry and know that in order to fully participate, you need legal training to ask questions, cross examine and answer questions of law. One only has to look at the Frank Paul Inquiry to see how many questions of law were referred to the courts for decisions. When I attended the Frank Paul inquiry on a few occasions it resembled a court setting and process.
To be on an equal basis with the VPD and Vancouver Police Board, Vancouver Police Union, Government of Canada, Criminal Justice Branch, etc., etc., who will all have lawyers, the groups who have pulled out with full or limited participant status, wanted and needed lawyers to be a very necessary and integral part of the hearing and be able to address all issues including the legal ones and understand the rulings from the Commissioner. Now groups that should be at the tables are on the outside.
What a loss! Too bad the government couldn’t take a couple million dollars from the money they are putting into economic development initiatives to get BC moving ahead and put them into this inquiry. Surely, the immense impact of all the missing and murdered women within British Columbia is worth that. Ensuring that all voices are heard is a small price to pay to start the work to make the massive systemic changes we need to make so that indigenous women are treated fairly, and equally in all aspects of the justice system. Why do something half way? To have a comprehensive inquiry would have been a basis to start the process of working together to find solutions and recommendations. Now, organizations, indigenous peoples and others can find fault with an inquiry that did not take into consideration all views and concerns. Yes, people can participate in the study commission, but it is not the same as sitting at the table of the inquiry every day, presenting evidence, cross examining witnesses, studying evidence presented by others and feeling that you have made a contribution to something substantial.
In the scheme of things, it would have been a small price for the government of BC to pay for all the participants to participate-the price to pay for a credible, thorough and publically accepted process. Now, they have an inquiry that will always be viewed as something that was flawed, inadequate and incomplete. Credible? What do you think?