Groups pull out of missing women’s inquiry in protest
Aboriginal groups, including Victoria’s Coast Salish, may feel like they’ve won the battle and lost the war this week, after the B.C. government offered sub-par involvement in the B.C. Missing Women Commission of Inquiry. But the groups aren’t up for another round of oppression — they’ve decided to walk.
The Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs (UBCIC), the Carrier Sekani Tribal Council, the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) and other groups previously on board are now withdrawing from participating in an effort to point a finger back at the province’s “inadequate excuse” for the first and only independent inquiry into the missing and murdered Aboriginal women in B.C., especially Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
Despite two decades of fighting for the government’s attention on the matters, Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of UBCIC, says that First Nations groups around the province are being shut out of the inquiry by the province’s actions: groups were not notified that an announcement of the inquiry would be made, they were not involved with the choice of commissioner, they were not consulted for any terms of reference and will not be provided any additional funding for expenses that could incur from involvement.
Compared to the recent inquiry into the Frank Paul case — a First Nations man who died in 1998 after being left by police in a lane-way while drunk — which saw First Nations groups fully involved in the case, Phillip believes the province is trying to take the easy way out on a complicated situation.
“We’ve heard the officials and Premier Christy Clark speak to how this violence against women has been horrific in our province, and how governments need to do their utmost to ensure that this is dealt with and nothing like this happens again,” he says. “Yet at the first opportunity for our government to act, they deny funding to the very groups they claim to be helping.”
Funding for counsel outside the justice system has been restricted to one lawyer representing a fraction of the families affected by the tragedies of Vancouver’s DTES. The 13 groups granted standing at the inquiry have been denied funding to participate.
Jeannette Corbiere Lavell, president of the NWAC, says she is “deeply disappointed” that the association will be unable to bring forward the voices and concerns of Aboriginal women and girls to this inquiry as planned. The NWAC was the only Aboriginal organization granted full standing.
“Now we have no confidence that [the inquiry] will be able to produce a fair and balanced report,” Corbiere Lavell says. “The decision of the B.C. government to restrict funding for counsel primarily to police and government agencies demonstrates how flawed and one-sided this process has become.”
Phillip says the results are heartbreaking after nearly 20 years of political struggle, marches, rallies, candlelight vigils and demonstrations had seemed to, at first, finally have some traction. The groups are also displeased with the decision to appoint former attorney general Wally Oppal as commissioner. Oppal is seen as a “political insider” and has formerly described inquiries as onerous, says Phillip. However, the province decided not to implement Oppal’s recommendations for funding to the NWAC and other groups, whose participation he deemed necessary to make the inquiry fair and effective.
“Without the proper funding and involvement, these groups — like the Downtown Eastside women’s groups — cannot fully participate and have a role in this inquiry,” says Phillip. “This act muzzles us and further slams a door in our face — it’s becoming a cover up, a whitewash.”
Without the participation of First Nations groups, Phillip says the province will “absolutely not” be able to successfully complete the inquiry. With more groups pulling out, Phillip says they will have to “decide where to go from here.” But one thing is certain: the group will not be abandoning the issue. The NWAC is now calling for a national inquiry to focus on the issue of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls across Canada.
“The integrity of this inquiry is failing fast,” Phillip says. “We’re not going to see people challenging themselves and asking those hard questions . . . It’s astonishing how wrong this is.” M