Introduction by Roger Annis, Dec 19, 2012
Enclosed are four news articles on the reaction to the release two days ago of the report of the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry that was ordered by the government of British Columbia in September 2010. The commission was established in response to popular pressure concerning the 60 or more women in the Vancouver region who went missing or were murdered during the 1980s and 1990s, many at the hands of convicted murderer Robert Pickton and his associates. Many of the victims were Aboriginal and were already victims of the sex trade.
Across Canada, there are hundreds of missing and murdered women, again, a large number of whom are Aboriginal. Their estimated numbers vary widely. They include some 20 to 45 women estimated to have died along the section of Highway 16 that connects the city of Prince George in north central British Columbia to the BC coast at Prince Rupert. That highway has been popularly renamed ‘The Highway of Tears’.
Human rights and other advocates across Canada, including critics of the BC inquiry, are demanding that the federal government order an inquiry (royal commission) into missing and murdered women throughout Canada. Further below is a news article about that demand. The article is dated December 8, that is, prior to the BC inquiry’s report being issued to the public. The federal government continues to rebuff calls for a royal commission.
In December 2011, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) decided to launch a formal inquiry into the response of the Canadian government and federal and provincial agencies to the murders and disappearances of more than 600 women across Canada in the past several decades. A disproportionately high number of women victims are Aboriginal. The only other formal investigation of a country by CEDAW took place in Mexico in 2003-2004, in response to the murders of women occurring in the state of Chihauhua.
‘As a group, they were dismissed’: Missing women report
B.C. Attorney-General Wally Oppal today released 1,400-page report, entitled “Forsaken”
By Lori Culbert, Vancouver Sun, December 18, 2012, page one
Karin Joesbury wipes away tears when asked whether the 1,448-page report into Vancouver’s missing women case could make a difference in the future for vulnerable women like her daughter Andrea. “I hoped it would change things. I hope that it does, I really do,” said Joesbury, whose daughter is one of the six women serial killer Robert (Willy) Pickton has been convicted of murdering. “But I feel like we spent a lot of money, maybe wasted money.”
The report released Monday comes more than two years after an $8-million inquiry was struck to examine the missing women case, and more than a decade since Pickton’s arrest. Former attorney general Wally Oppal, head of the inquiry, put 65 recommendations in his voluminous report, many of them calls for changes that have been discussed publicly over the years.
Oppal hopes that listing the recommendations together in the hefty document will prompt policy-makers to act. He also believes the climate is right in B.C. to make some of the changes, such as bringing in regionalized policing and improving the treatment of vulnerable women.
Oppal, a former B.C. Appeal Court justice, said his review of the investigation evidence led him to the conclusion “that there was systemic bias by the police in the missing women investigation.”
“They did not receive equal treatment from police. As a group they were dismissed.”
Some relatives of the missing women, who felt ignored by police, let down by the justice system, and left out of Oppal’s inquiry, aren’t convinced vulnerable women will be safer as a result of the report. “I think today has been a total sham, just like the whole inquiry has been,” said Angel Wolfe, 19, whose mother Brenda was another of Pickton’s victims. “We need to have the RCMP and VPD be accountable for the jobs they did.
“Nothing Wally Oppal or the police can say to me will bring my mom back.”
But Sandra Gagnon, who recalls not always being treated well by police when her sister Janet Henry disappeared, was buoyed by the report. “I’m really glad that he took it seriously, that he spoke well of the families and what the families have been through,” said Gagnon, who at one point during the press conference hushed other victims’ relatives because she wanted to hear Oppal. “I could tell that he’s really sincere and I’m glad something came of the inquiry, even though people say there isn’t going to be money for everything (all the recommendations).”
And Ernie Crey, whose sister Dawn vanished from the Downtown Eastside, said in an interview that Oppal’s report “exceeded his expectations” because it was an encyclopedic recount of how police “fell short of the mark” while investigating and how some officers failed to treat families with dignity and respect. “I couldn’t find a single recommendation that I would have an exception to,” said Crey, whose sister’s DNA was found on Pickton’s farm. “For me, it was a good day – more than I had expected.”
The inquiry heard from 85 witnesses over 93 days and collected 150,000 pages of evidence, as it examined why it took so long for the Vancouver police and RCMP to identify Pickton as a serial killer, despite warnings he was preying on sex workers in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
The provincial government has already addressed several of Oppal’s wide-ranging recommendations, including appointing former lieutenant-governor Steven Point as a “champion” to implement the findings. But Point faces a significant task, as some of the recommendations have been discussed without being acted on for years. These include regionalized policing and bus service along B.C.’s isolated Highway 16 [connects Edmonton to the BC coast at Prince Rupert via the BC interior city of Prince George] , where many women have disappeared.
Others, such as increased sensitivity training and changes in how missing person cases are investigated, will require buy-in from police. Still others will cost money, such as a 24-hour drop-in centre in the Downtown Eastside and a compensation fund for the children of the missing women. That recommendation appealed to Cynthia Cardinal, whose sister Georgina Papin was one of Pickton’s victims. “Georgina’s kids – she’s got seven of them, they don’t have any support – except from us,” said Cardinal, who was devastated by the police response in her sister’s case, and isn’t confident things will change.
Oppal wrote the VPD had an obligation to warn women in the Downtown Eastside about the danger they were in, “and utterly failed to do so.” The police investigations were also “wholly inadequate” when following up tips, were “plagued by unacceptable delays,” and failed to properly use techniques such as surveillance, undercover operations, search warrants and forensic evidence, the report said.
It concluded the VPD showed a lack of urgency in responding to the mounting numbers of missing women, partly because police failed to “get to know” the victims and believed inaccurate information, such as that they would “turn up” one day.
Since Clifford Olson’s killing spree decades ago, there have been multiple calls for a regional force in the Lower Mainland, which is policed by a patchwork quilt of municipal agencies and RCMP detachments. Pickton’s victims disappeared from the VPD’s territory, but he did his killing at his home in Port Coquitlam, which is policed by the RCMP.
Oppal’s report said there was a “general systemic failure” by the two agencies to deal with those cross-jurisdictional issues. This fragmentation of policing led to “serious communications failures,” a breakdown in evidence sharing, and a lack of funding because of the low priority given to the case, the report said. As well, he said, the case lacked any leadership by any police agency.”No senior management at the VPD, RCMP E Division Major Crime Section, Coquitlam RCMP, or Provincial Unsolved Homicide Unit took on this leadership role and asserted ongoing responsibility for the case.”
There was a “wholly unacceptable delay,” Oppal added, in finally forming a joint-forces task force in 2001; by then an estimated 60 women had disappeared from the Downtown Eastside over about 20 years.
Deputy RCMP Commissioner Craig Callens said in a statement that he welcomed Oppal’s report, but would need time to review the recommendations. Vancouver police would not comment Monday.
Minister of Justice Shirley Bond argued police agencies are more integrated today, but said the call for regional policing “will be treated seriously and given the attention it deserves.”
Oppal said not all the mistakes in the case belong to police, noting there were other systemic issues that led to the victims ending up on the street, including poverty, racism, drug addiction and a lack of affordable housing. “Even though Pickton is in jail, the violence against women in the Downtown Eastside and other areas of this province continues. It is time to stop the violence,” Oppal said. Families in the audience broke out in applause, and one woman yelled, “Amen!”
However, Oppal was regularly interrupted by family members yelling “hogwash” and “sham,” as the majority appeared to have given up hope that the report would speak for them.
The inquiry itself was divisive. Victims’ families, women’s groups and aboriginal leaders said it focused too narrowly on policing and didn’t call witnesses to speak about systemic issues that put the victims on the streets. When the terms of reference were not expanded and the province denied funding for lawyers for the advocacy groups, many organizations boycotted the inquiry.
Two lawyers were appointed to broadly represent the interests of aboriginals and people living in the impoverished Downtown Eastside. Critics said this was not fair, as more than two dozen lawyers represented police and government.
In an interview with The Sun, Oppal listed the “blatant errors” made in the case, including:
- Society – including most police officers, politicians and citizens – initially dismissing the poor, marginalized victims as “nobodies.”
- Vancouver police took poor reports when families phoned to say loved ones were missing, and acted without urgency.
- In March 1997, a Downtown Eastside sex worker escaped from Pickton’s farm after being violently stabbed. Pickton was charged with attempted murder (the charges were later stayed) and a concerned RCMP officer attached a warning to his name on the police computer system. Even though the victim told police Pickton bragged about bringing women to his home, Pickton was not a priority suspect that year when many sex trade workers disappeared.
- There was “an unseemly fight” between former VPD Det. Kim Rossmo, who wanted to warn the public in 1998 that a serial killer may be preying on vulnerable women, and then-Insp. Fred Biddlecombe, who vetoed the idea, arguing there was no evidence to support it. “Public safety was compromised by not warning the public,” Oppal said.
- The Vancouver police missing person unit was understaffed, and families said an administrative assistant there was indifferent and rude.
- Between 1998 and 1999, four informants had pointed fingers at Pickton, but Vancouver police did little with the information. The formants included Bill Hiscox, whose friend Lisa Yelds had seen women’s clothing on the farm and thought Pickton was killing women, and Lynn Ellingsen, who said she saw a woman being butchered in the slaughterhouse. (Police have said the witnesses were problematic, as they were drug users and changed their stories.)
- RCMP Const. Ruth Yurkiw phoned Pickton’s farm in 1999, but his brother Dave asked her to call back in the “rainy season” when they weren’t as busy and she agreed.
- Project Evenhanded, the joint RCMP-VPD task force, thought at first it was investigating only historic murders, even though women continued to disappear. It also spent too much time looking for a connection between three murdered sex-trade workers found near Mission and the Downtown Eastside cases.
Report shines no new light on tragedy
Oppal offers no insights gained from half a century in the legal system; he documents police failures, but doesn’t analyze why they happened
By Ian Mulgrew, columnist, Vancouver Sun, Dec. 18, 2012, page one
Missing Women’s Inquiry Commissioner Wally Oppal had been speaking for several minutes before the first derisive comment rang out: “Hogwash!” Over the course of a rambling, hour-long presentation unveiling his multivolume report, the former appeal court justice was interrupted several times by victims’ families and aboriginal women.
They did not yell, “Bravo.” Oppal, who was appointed to oversee the inquiry in September 2010, pleaded with his audience for understanding, for people to read the 1,448 page document and to consider his conclusions.
But the native people and victims’ families who attended his media conference on Monday responded with angry skepticism. Who can blame them? They had heard much of it before over the decade since serial killer Robert Pickton was apprehended – the police investigations were “blatant failures,” there were “patterns of error,” there was an “absence of leadership,” there were “outdated policing systems …” Yet no one was to blame. “All of us have to take responsibility,” Oppal said.
There was a “lack of accountability,” he said – there still is. His solutions? Working groups, liaison officers, community workers, mandatory training, research projects, consultation processes … More money for victims’ kids, more money for victims’ families, more money for aboriginal women’s groups, more money for women’s shelters … a regional police force, a new agency for warning the public …
Police officers should “promote equality” and “refrain from discriminatory policing,” “equality” should be added as a fundamental principle to the Crown Policy Manual … there should be an end to endemic poverty! Oppal might as well have thrown Jell- O at the wall and told the government to adopt whatever sticks.
He did a good job of documenting the police mistakes, but he didn’t do a good job of analyzing the reasons this tragedy occurred. What seems missing from his tome was any perspective from the man who spent most of the last half- century in the legal system at every level.
From the prosecution service to the eccentricities of the provincial policing system, from the inner workings of the criminal justice branch to the politics of the bench, to how things get done in cabinet, Oppal is intimate with it all. And he’s from a visible minority group.
If there’s anyone who should know about institutional racism and systemic problems, it’s him. Yet none of that insight was brought to bear. In spite of how much he says this was a heart- wrenching ordeal, Oppal appears to have simply gone through the motions.
And he is dead wrong when he says we are all responsible. Yes, most of us should shoulder some blame for society’s inequalities. But in this case, the media and the community clamoured for police to wake up and they were not just ignored, their fears and concerns were discounted and ridiculed.
It’s disingenuous to use long-standing social inequities to muddy the issue of institutional responsibility and the failure of government in this specific case.
Regardless, Attorney General Shirley Bond said the broad societal changes “will not happen overnight. There is a long journey ahead of us.” No kidding. I’m reminded of a Jewish guy who once said the poor will be with you always, but let’s leave that quibble aside.
The systemic problems this report itemizes are also going to be with us for a long time. The government’s response was to say we’ll have a lot more talk. Bond committed to little else – the $ 750,000 she announced as funding for an emergency drop- in centre is considerably less than the legal fees charged by the commission’s own lawyers. No wonder there were hecklers.
Imagine, after all this time, dozens of women went missing and now we know what went wrong – systemic failures in two police departments for which Mr. Nobody is responsible.
Still, given his conclusions, what was Oppal doing as attorney general from 2005 through 2009? Didn’t he see the systemic issues then? At least he could have explained in his report why he’s making recommendations today on things he had the power to set right years ago.
Oppal said the missing women were “forsaken twice: once by society at large and again by the police.” I tend to agree with the woman who yelled: “And now a third time by you!”
Community groups say they’re still shut out and ignored
By Kelly Sinoski, Vancouver Sun, Dec 18, 2012
Community advocacy groups called Monday for a royal [federal] commission on missing and murdered women in Canada, saying they are deeply disappointed in the findings of the latest inquiry by Commissioner Wally Oppal. Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of B. C. Indian Chiefs, said the inquiry would not provide closure to those who lost loved ones to serial killer Robert Pickton because they had been shut out of the process.
More than a dozen organizations representing aboriginal and women’s groups did not appear before the commission because the province refused to pay for their legal representation.
“The inquiry report does not reflect the heart and soul of the missing and murdered women because these groups … were denied that opportunity,” Phillip said. “It’s a shame, an absolute shame considering we marched through the streets of downtown Vancouver 20 years ago to bring forward the inquiry and it was completely compromised by the political manipulations of the provincial government,” Stewart said. “They want to continually sweep it under the carpet.”
He and community advocate Marlene George said community groups are still being shut out, citing the province’s announcement Monday that former B. C. lieutenant- governor Steven Point has been appointed the new “champion” to offer advice on addressing the inquiry recommendations. There was no consultation about this either, said George.
Point, who was offered the appointment two days ago, agreed with the criticism, saying, “the government is interested in showing they want to take the report seriously but they didn’t consult.”
He said he plans to work with the community groups and families before giving any advice to the province. “Aboriginal people and poor people deserve to be given the same protection under the law as everyone else,” he said. “This deserves more attention; it deserves someone to carry it forward.”
Assembly of First Nations demands investigation of missing and murdered native women
By Gloria Galloway, Globe and Mail, Dec 8, 2012
Shannon Alexander and her teenage friend Maisy Odjick had planned to go to a dance one Saturday night in September of 2008, then sleep alone at Shannon’s house on the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation in western Quebec. On Sunday, Maisy’s grandmother and mother could not reach her by phone and started to worry. On Monday, they went to the Alexander home, where they found the girls’ purses, identification and backpacks. But Maisy, 16, and Shannon, 17, were gone. More than four years later, there is still no sign of them.
Maisy and Shannon are just two of some 600 aboriginal girls and women who have been documented as murdered or missing over the past two decades (in Canada). First nations researchers say there are many more who have vanished without a trace, but whose cases have not generated paperwork or police interest.
Faced with what they say is a critical situation that is being ignored outside their own communities, the chiefs of the Assembly of First Nations passed a resolution this week demanding that the government of Canada establish an independent public commission to investigate the disappearances and killings of aboriginal women. The chiefs, who met for three days in Gatineau, want AFN National Chief Shawn Atleo to work with the provinces and territories to press for such an inquiry and for a national strategy to be developed to stop the violence being inflicted on their daughters, mothers, aunts and sisters.
If the Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper ignores their demands – as it has twice – they plan to take the fight to Parliament Hill as well as police stations and the offices of federal and provincial politicians across the country.
“Over four years later and a lot of questions still remaining,” Gilbert Whiteduck, the chief of the first nation where Maisy and Shannon went missing, said Thursday after a session to discuss the threats faced by native women. “It’s like they were taken off the face of the Earth. It’s like they disappeared into nowhere.”
The provincial police in Quebec and the first nation’s own force have followed every lead to no avail. But some participants at the AFN meeting said law enforcement officials too often refuse to take reports of missing native women seriously – that victims are dismissed as runaways. And they noted, on the day that serves as an annual memorial for 14 women who were gunned down 23 years ago at the École Polytechnique in Montreal, that there is little notice or attention given to the many first nations women who are killed every year with guns and knives.
According to the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC), about 50 per cent of the violent deaths of aboriginal women and girls result in homicide charges – compared with 76 per cent for the general population in 2011, according to Statistics Canada.
In British Columbia, at least 18 women have vanished or been killed since the 1970s near the Yellowhead Highway, known as the Highway of Tears, which runs from Manitoba to the Pacific Ocean.
Mr. Atleo and others say a public inquiry would draw attention to these issues and give people who have lost a female relative or friend to violence a chance to tell their stories.
NWAC president Michèle Audette has been fighting for years for a public forum to examine the deaths and disappearances of indigenous women. “My dream, and the dream of NWAC, of course, is that it will change legislation, policy, programs,” Ms. Audette said, “and it will give an overview of the root cause of this systemic discrimination and how come women are ending like this with no answers and no justice.”