Missing women: BC rejects extension call from Pickton victim families, NDP
Justice denied. That's how Lilliane Beaudoin describes the BC government's refusal to extend the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry another six months – despite weeks of delays and dozens of key witnesses yet unheard before the final 16 days of hearings.
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Drawing another drag of her cigarette in the hotel room she's adorned with plants over the course of the hearings, the Calgary resident glances at a photo of her sister Dianne: a brunette with curly hair, smiling broadly in denim overalls. Dianne Rock was murdered by serial killer Robert Pickton – his penultimate victim before being arrested in 2002, after a four-year investigation.
No six-month extension
“We feel we've totally been denied by the justice system our right to answers as to what they did wrong,” Beaudoin told The Vancouver Observer. “Instead of trying to cover up your asses, give us our answers and point the fingers where they need to be pointed."
“We pleaded and we begged for a long time for this inquiry. Our hopes finally went sky-high when we got (it) – we thought, 'This is going to be our day.' Now this is our last chance to get the information we need. It's devastating for me to even comprehend that they are going to let this go.”
Today, she and other families of missing women got a boost from the BC New Democratic Party (NDP), whose leader Adrian Dix and the Downtown Eastside's MP, Jenny Kwan, joined them for a press conference calling for a six-month inquiry extension until Dec. 31.
“We call on the government – Attorney General Shirley Bond and Premier Christy Clark – to offer this inquiry the resources it needs to extend the terms of reference to allow the hearings to continue,” Lori-Ann Ellis told reporters. “To refuse the commission the time and resources it needs to complete its work would show that nothing has changed, that society is just as intolerant and prejudiced as it was when Robert Pickton carried out his reign of terror.”
For Ellis, the missing women inquiry is also achingly personal. Her sister-in-law, Cara Ellis, disappeared from the Downtown Eastside – only to have her DNA found on Pickton's Port Coquitlam pig farm during the largest murder investigation in Canadian history.
But the press conference – also attended by other victims' families – was pre-empted by minister Bond shortly after it was announced yesterday. Her answer: No.
“The inquiry will have taken up a year and a half,” Bond told the Canadian Press yesterday. “We have provided legal resources to support the families throughout this process."
“There does need to be a point where we move forward with important recommendations. . . What we want to do is to actually begin to act on the kinds of changes that are necessary to prevent this from happening again.”
Ongoing criticisms of missing women inquiry
The inquiry has been under a barrage of criticism since it began last October, starting with the appointment of Wally Oppal as its Commissioner. Oppal was BC's Attorney General when his department dropped 20 murder charges against Pickton – a decision which outraged many victims' families. Pickton was eventually convicted of six second-degree murders, although DNA from 33 women was found on his property, and he admitting to killing 16 more in a jailhouse confession.
The next setback was when the BC government turned down requests to fund the participation of groups connected to the missing and murdered women – including Downtown Eastside agencies, human rights and Indigenous organizations, and sex worker advocacy groups.
This led to the inquiry – which resulted from years of community pressure – being boycotted by almost every participating organization, including Amnesty International, the Assembly of First Nations, and the Downtown Eastside Women's Centre.
Earlier this month, another hitch: Robyn Gervais, the lawyer representing Aboriginal interests, resigned amidst accusations her witness requests were rejected and Indigenous voices ignored. Her withdrawal caused the last remaining First Nations group involved to boycott the hearings.
All of this, say families of the missing and murdered women, has been “devastating.”
“My sister Dianne was the second-to-last that was murdered under the nose of the (VPD Missing Women's) Task Force,” Beaudoin told the Vancouver Observer. “I really needed to get some answers about how this was able to go on . . . how these things can happen right under the watch of the police.”
“They've pulled the carpet out from under us,” interjects Ellis.
Changing attitudes toward sex workers
One of the few positive sides, said lawyer Neil Chantler – who with Cameron Ward represents 25 victim families – has been the chance for his clients to tell their stories. The inquiry has heard of police brushing off missing person reports, using racist and sexist language, and having sex with the very women they were supposed to protect. Public outcry over the Pickton murders, however, has led to Vancouver police announcing a new set of guidelines to make the safety of sex workers a priority and to treat them with "dignity and respect".
“Families of some of the missing and murdered women have been given an opportunity to tell their stories,” said Neil Chantler. “They fought for years for this Inquiry.
“In the face of the April 30 deadline, cross-examination time has been restricted, witnesses have not been called, and disclosure has not been ordered. The Commission has made great efforts to meet the deadline, but it has proven to be an impossible task.”
The government has, time and time again, been firm on its deadline, citing the need to move forward. Oppal's mandate is to determine what exactly went wrong with the Pickton investigation, and to suggest changes needed to prevent such problems in the future.
For some families, however, the inquiry is about more than the police. It's about how people treat society's most vulnerable women – the drug-addicted sex workers of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, whom Pickton targeted for at least a decade with impunity.
“The inquiry has a chance to change minds and make people look at things differently,” Ellis told the Vancouver Observer. “Unless we really dig deeper for answers . . . people are going to continue to look at the girls (in the sex trade) as if they're disposable or invisible.
“I want to know as much truth as I possibly could about what happened to Cara and to the other girls – and what went wrong in society. That's one of the things that can't get lost in all of this: there's human beings behind this story, the victims themselves.”