Wally Oppal’s Missing Women Commission of Inquiry is underway in Vancouver this week — a failure from the opening gavel, an epic national embarrassment.
And I have had to do some serious rethinking on this sad affair.
Back in July, I wrote in this space: “If Oppal’s inquiry is to have any lasting benefit it will be its ability to identify protocols that can be implemented to ensure that our various law enforcement agencies are on the same page when such a terrible crisis is unfolding.”
That was true enough. But I also suggested the debate around the government’s refusal to fund legal representation for special interest groups amounted to needless pandering. I was wrong.
At the time, I failed to fully appreciate that the Vancouver Police Department and the RCMP and their platoons of $250-an-hour lawyers would ultimately have carte blanche to dodge and weave around the very thing this exercise should be about — accountability.
As I am writing this column, mere moments before Oppal is scheduled to get down to business, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association and Amnesty International have officially opted out.
Their exit represents the tail end of the boycott avalanche. By my count, 20 of the 21 groups granted standing before the commission have pulled out because of the government’s refusal to budget $1.5 million for legal representation. There have even been calls for intervention by the United Nations.
Amnesty International Canada Secretary General Alex Neve says: “We could not allow our presence to be seen as supporting a process that has gone so far off-track. It’s not a level playing field; we’re not even on the same field.”
Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs President Stewart Phillip expressed bitter disappointment. “After 20 years of candlelight vigils, demands for an inquiry into why hundreds of aboriginal women were going missing, after crying endless tears, First Nations and women’s groups get nothing.”
B.C. Civil Liberties Association lawyer Michael Vonn has estimated the inquiry will generate a million pages of testimony. In the cops’ corner there will be at least 14 lawyers, and in the public interest corner there will be just four or five with at least two of them helping pro bono.
The police have already established a combative tone. They are seeking to ban the names of sex offenders in documents to be made public at the inquiry. Jason Gratl, representing Downtown Eastside sex trade workers, is fighting the ban.
Sean Hern, a lawyer representing Vancouver police, says investigative documents, including police notes, contain the identities and sensitive personal information of a large number of people.
“It is our view that unless that information is already public information or is for some reason necessary to publicize as part of the commission’s work, it should remain private and be redacted from exhibits that are made publicly available,” Hern says.
At the same time, Gratl says police are opposing his application to have sex trade workers give evidence anonymously by affidavit.
Anyone who thinks the police are in this to help shed light on an awful chapter of our criminal history is sadly mistaken. The police are in this to cover their asses. And, they are doing it with taxpayer-funded legal help.
The odds are well stacked against the interests of full disclosure and accountability. The process is a sham. M