Missing Women inquiry adjourned to replace First Nations lawyer


VANCOUVER — The Missing Women Commission of Inquiry will stand down until April 2, in a last-minute bid to get a First Nations rights lawyer to speak to the social issues that have led to dangerous sex work being dominated by aboriginal women.

Commissioner Wally Oppal said he is extremely troubled by the high-profile departure last week of Robyn Dean Gervais, appointed last August as independent counsel representing aboriginal interests.

Although First Nations make up about four per cent of the British Columbia population, aboriginal women comprise the majority of women compelled by poverty, mental illness and traumatic family dysfunction to work in the dangerous survival or low-track sex trade, centred on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

The inquiry has heard evidence that seven out of 10 victims of serial murderers are women working as prostitutes.

Gervais, a Metis lawyer, gained the respect and approval of virtually every major First Nations group in B.C. when she quit last Wednesday, citing the commission’s alleged unwillingness to give enough time and weight to evidence from First Nations witnesses.

Oppal said he has directed Commission counsel Art Vertlieb to find a “respected legal professional” with a good background and grasp of First Nations issues to jump into the commission. After hearing from Monday’s panel of four Vancouver Police Department officers, all retired, the Commission will adjourn until April 2 to allow the new lawyer to get up to speed.

The commission has held more than 50 days of formal hearings and has amassed at least 100,000 pages of evidence.

Vertlieb said outside court that “we have in mind someone who is an experienced and very well-respected individual.” Vertlieb admitted that the inquiry “has covered a lot of ground,” but added that “an experienced lawyer can cover a lot of ground quickly.”

The lawyer’s name has not been released but will be within the next two weeks, Vertlieb said.

Oppal said inside the Federal Court, where the inquiry is being held, that the inquiry did not want to proceed without adequate consultation with First Nations interests, since a “disproportionate number of the victims (of serial killer Robert Pickton) were aboriginal.”

Oppal said that “we hold ourselves to a high standard,” and added the commission needs to produce a strong report, addressing First Nations interests as well as any possible policing failures and problems, “so the mistakes of the past are not repeated and we make our communities safer for vulnerable women.”

Virtually every prominent First Nations and women’s group in B.C — including the First Nations Summit, the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre, the Feb. 14 Women’s Memorial March Committee, the Native Women’s Association of Canada, the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs and the Assembly of First Nations — have withdrawn from the inquiry.

Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs president and Grand Chief Stewart Phillip said last week that the inquiry’s scramble to find a qualified First Nations lawyer would be “difficult, if not impossible” and would be regarded “as too little, too late.”

Oppal did recommend funding for all those groups and gave them legal standing at the inquiry, but Premier Christy Clark vetoed in February 2011 giving any funding to native or community groups, saying she would prefer that the money go to women still struggling to get out of the heavily drug-infested, dangerous Downtown Eastside.

Vertlieb acknowledged that the inquiry may have to extend its end-of-April deadline for formal hearings, but said he remains hopeful that the new lawyer will be ready by April 2 to start full participation.

Oppal said the adjournment also will give lawyer Cameron Ward, acting for 25 murdered women’s families, time to examine and prepare documents that have been disclosed, although Ward has asked for much more than the Commission has said it is prepared to publicly release.

On the stand Monday, former Vancouver police Const. Dave Dickson testified he went to his bosses when he discovered a uniformed police officer was “taking advantage of very vulnerable women” on the Downtown Eastside by extorting sexual favours from them.

Dickson filed a report and asked that the officer be removed, which he was. But then Dickson was called in by a police inspector, who told him the officer’s behaviour was no different than a police officer “going across the street” to have a sexual liaison with anyone. Dickson testified that he strongly disagreed.

“I walked out,” said Dickson, expressing his disgust at the inspector’s attitude.

Dickson also said that in his opinion, after an almost 30-year career in the Downtown Eastside, including 28 years with the Vancouver police and a lot of time dealing with community agencies and working with vulnerable women, “it’s worse now than it was then.”

Asked by Ward if a predator could still prey upon and kill women with the impunity that Pickton did, on a killing spree lasting from at least 1991 until his arrest in 2002, Dickson said he did not know if that could occur again. But Dickson noted that “girls are being beaten . . . their hair chopped off . . . for as little as a $40 drug debt.”

In each of the last two years, a woman died after being thrown out of hotel room window, a signal to drug-users in the area that nonpayment of money perceived to be owing will be viciously punished.

There are a host of drug-dealers competing for business and violently enforcing the collection of drug debts, said Dickson, making the women of the Downtown Eastside as vulnerable, or more vulnerable, as they have ever been to injury and death.

Oppal had pledged to hand in his formal report by the end of June 2012. Vertlieb said he does not know yet if that deadline will also have to be adjusted.

The inquiry had decided already not to hold hearings next week, due to school spring break, Vertlieb noted.