Community News: Missing Women’s “Sham” Inquiry Continues Legacy of Injustice

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      Almost a month has passed since the Missing Women’s public inquiry began. On a severely imbalanced stage set by the government of British Columbia we see the slow process of truth letting, yet it is painfully clear that there is a great void where a group of indispensable voices must be heard, yet have been systematically silenced.

      These are the voices of those who experienced first hand the dark times when Robert Pickton preyed on the women of the downtown eastside freely for over ten years. The same women we are now learning in their absence, simultaneously experienced abuse and intimidation from the police force. As the inquiry progresses it is clear that the Attorney General Shirley Bond and the provincial government have done themselves no favor in implicating themselves in such an deeply tragic and corrupt past by lavishing the VPD and RCMP with 14 plus lawyers from the top firms in Vancouver, while in turn denying funding to all advocacy groups that were granted full standing. Rather they chose to remedy this imbalance by providing two public lawyers to cover the cumulative interests of all grieving families and all advocacy groups despite a diverse range of involvement and interests.

      AG Shirley Bond was unapologetic when questioned on the imbalance, managing to completely skirt the reasoning behind the excess funding of police lawyers. She instead insisted that the structure of a public inquiry does not require legal counsel and therefore those denied funding should be satisfied with their humble offerings of two commission lawyers.
Professor Kent W. Roach, Chair of Law and Public Policy
 at University of Toronto and 18 other prominent lawyers from across Canada strongly disagree in an open letter they addressed to her (to which she gave no response):

      “Cross examination is the main instrument through which documentary and spoken evidence at a public inquiry is tested … Effective and informed cross-examination requires the assistance of legal counsel….To render them voiceless when it is their lives and safety which are the subject of the Inquiry, is unprincipled, as well as legally unsound…”

As Harsha Walia of the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre stated: How can the commission possibly uncover the truth about systemic violence against women in the DTES without hearing from those women who actually experience it?

      For those unfamiliar with the dynamic of power that takes place within the downtown east-side it might be difficult to understand why its residents would allow a heavy defense team to deter them from participating in an discourse so important to them. Yet when you take into account that these individuals must come face to face with many of the officers they testify against on the street, as well as endure a process of rigorous cross examination (subjecting them to re-traumatization) it creates an unsafe environment.
Following public health researcher Kate Shannon’s, testimony on October 18th it comes as no surprise. She gave witness that the VPD would often force street level sex trade workers in the dtes to perform sexual favors in exchange for not being fined or arrested.

      The subject of re-traumatization in a process of cross examination is also one that cannot be taken lightly as Catherine Astin, a public health nurse, testified that many of these women suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. She also in addition to Kate Shannon’s testimony conveyed the mistrusting fearful relationship these women have with the police force. Harsha Walia has gravely expressed that the VPD is fully aware that the current conditions strongly discourage residents from testifying which is just one of many circumstances that have been leading many to believe that there is a cover up lacking in subtlety.
   
      Cameron Ward the legal counsel appointed to represent the families of 18 missing and murdered women stated in a post on his blog:
“When I attend the hearing each day, I look around at the desks in the room and see the Commission’s lawyers plus teams of lawyers representing the RCMP, the VPD, the CJB, Vancouver Police Union, a VPD member and a former VPD member.  Any interested observer can gauge how interested all these other lawyers are in ferreting out the truth by attending the hearings or reading the transcripts.”
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      The unequal legal representation is just one of many astonishing imbalances that led to 22 advocacy groups withdrawing from the inquiry before it began including the Downtown Eastside Women’s Association, the Assembly of First Nations, Amnesty International, B.C Civil Liberties Union, among others.

    According to Alex Neve in a statement issued on behalf of Amnesty, participating in the inquiry would be supporting the injustices taking place within it: “At its very heart this commission of inquiry is grappling with critical concerns about access to justice and human rights protection for some of the most marginalized communities in the province. But it is going forward in a manner that only adds to that longstanding sense of exclusion and discrimination.”

      The grievances are many including the hiring of Wally Oppal, who posesses a major conflict of interest as he was the Attorney General of the Pickton murder trials, not to mention his previous vocalizing against the holding of an inquiry in the first place. Also troubling are the withholding of documents from the attorneys representing the families, and reviewing of files by Peel police, a notorious police department in Ontario currently facing a multitude of charges related to internal corruption. The list goes on.

      As a result the inquiry was ushered in by a series of protests organized by the advocacy groups that had withdrawn, led by the Coast Salish People. Each day a drum circle would occupy the intersection of Georgia and Granville Street outside the courthouse so that within the inquiry’s proceedings, the drum circle and protest could be heard. Each day the rally would end in a round dance and the woman’s warrior song with such strength and beauty in stark contrast to the bustling business and shopping district of Vancouver of curious individuals, sending a powerful message of the united demand for justice.

Women’s Memorial March and Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre Statement on Reasons for Non-Participation:
http://womensmemorialmarch.wordpress.com/2011/10/03/non-participation-sham-inquiry/#more-167

Backgrounder on BCCLA and Amnesty’s Concerns leading to Non-Participation:
http://www.bccla.org/pressreleases/11Missing_women_backgrounder.pdf

Open Letter to Attorney Shirley Bond on Behalf of 18 lawyers from Across Canada:
http://www.nwac.ca/sites/default/files/imce/WEBSITES/201107-12/MissingWomenLetterSeptember7%2C%202011.pdf


A Blog with Frequently Updated News on the Inquiry
http://missingwomen.blogspot.com

Cameron Ward, counsel for the families of 18 missing and murdered women
http://www.cameronward.com/

 

Chandra Melting Tallow, Siksika Nation
Visual Design Coordinator
Redwire Native Youth Media
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