The Assembly of First Nations has officially pulled out of the British Columbia Missing Women of Inquiry Commission’s hearing procedures due to concerns over funding inequities between legal representation for advocacy groups and that of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and other parties involved. The announcement came on the first day of the hearings, October 11.
“The Assembly of First Nations is no longer confident the Inquiry will bring justice for the families of missing and murdered women in Canada,” said AFN National Chief Shawn Atleo in a statement on Tuesday.
“The principle objectives behind AFN’s participation from the beginning have been to support the families, to bring to light systemic issues that gave rise to these tragedies and finally to identify efforts toward resolution of those issues,” Atleo said. “We hoped the inquiry would shed light to uncover truths that could help with the healing process for the families as well as to begin to point the way forward so that all women and the most vulnerable have access to justice. Without equity and balance, systemic issues will not be brought forward and will therefore not be reflected in the recommendations of the inquiry.”
The inquiry has been fraught with credibility issues since the beginning, as the British Columbia government refused to fund women’s and aboriginal groups that had been granted standing before the commission. Delivering testimony requires legal assistance, which the groups could not afford. Several dropped out in the weeks after that decision, saying they could not afford to participate. Even after the commission hired two attorneys and got two others to work pro bono, the groups said it was not sufficient.
Earlier this month both the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association and Amnesty International withdrew, a few days after two major women’s groups did so: the Women’s Memorial March Committee (WMMC) and the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre (DEWC).
The inquiry is supposed to determine why and how serial killer Robert Pickton was left unfettered for years to murder women from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. He was convicted in 2007 on six counts of second-degree murder, although remains of 33 women were found on his pig farm.
The hope is that analyzing the events between January 1997 and Pickton’s 2002 arrest will uncover the attitudes and policies that prevented police from launching an investigation during Pickton’s killing spree and thus shed light on the unsolved cases of the more than 700 aboriginal women still missing or murdered.
As the hearings began on October 11, the groups that would have represented those women and their families were outside protesting, the National Post reported, enough of them to completely block an intersection.
According to the Vancouver Sun, the British Columbia government has funded no fewer than 14 lawyers for the police, but just one, Cameron Ward, to represent the 17 families who lost family members to Pickton’s deeds.
“This inquiry has unravelled to the point it is nothing more than a whitewash,” said Stewart Phillip, Grand Chief of the British Columbia Union of Indian Chiefs (BCUIC), according to the Vancouver Sun.
Oppal has repeatedly asked the provincial government to reconsider, most recently in an eight-page letter, the Vancouver Sun reported, but the province insists that budget constraints prevent the funding. He originally recommended funding for 13 groups.
The shut-out groups on September 27 appealed to the United Nations, requesting anti-discrimination assistance, asking that the United Nations Special Rapporteurs on Violence Against Women, the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Independence of Judges and Lawyers make an urgent joint appeal to Canada for last-minute funds.