A new format for hearings before the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry—changing from a single-witness setup to a panel formation—has some participants questioning not only whether they will be heard but also whether the families will get to confront individual police officers.
Commission lawyer Art Vertlieb announced the development at the inquiry on Tuesday February 21 and is set to begin hearings under the new format next week.
The commission is probing why it took so long to catch serial killer Robert Pickton, who was ultimately convicted of murdering six women on his pig farm in Port Coquitlam, British Columbia. He confessed to an undercover police officer that he killed 49 more. The DNA of 33 women were found on his property.
Many of the women thought to have been murdered were aboriginal.
Vertlieb said that after 52 days of testimony by police and other officials at the inquiry, he wants to expand his efforts so as to generate recommendations by engaging the public, but in a less adversarial way than has been the case thus far.
“Having lawyers for the participants cross-examine witnesses in an adversarial process has been a necessary and important component and has already answered many of the questions we had about how the police investigation was conducted,” Vertlieb said in a news release.
Under the new panel format, the inquiry will hear testimony from groups of witnesses, including the families, the Downtown Eastside Community, aboriginal women, civic interests and police forces.
Vertlieb said he is looking to the aboriginal community to help him develop the panel process.
“We believe this approach will provide witnesses with another opportunity to contribute constructively and positively to our work by telling their stories and making suggestions,” Vertlieb said.
Lead commissioner Wally Oppal told The Globe and Mail that his focus has been the safety and security of women, especially those marginalized due to poverty, working in the sex trade or simply being aboriginal.
“I am determined to ensure that these women did not die in vain and that positive change resulting in the saving of lives will be the lasting memorial for the missing and murdered women,” he said.
But victims’ family members and representatives were caught off guard by the development and fear the proceedings will be watered down by the new format.
“This hit us like a hammer,” said Lori-Ann Ellis to Postmedia News. Ellis is the sister-in-law of Cara Ellis, whose DNA was found on Pickton’s farm. “We feel the police officers should have to answer on the witness stand for their conduct.”
A lawyer for the families, Neil Chantler, told the National Post that the move “diminishes the role of counsel at the inquiry. Cross-examination is an important tool. We had no forewarning. We weren’t consulted.”
Vancouver activist Jamie Lee Hamilton, who raised alarm bells about a serial killer on the Downtown Eastside years before Pickton was caught, said she is considering pulling out as a witness from the inquiry.
Hamilton was scheduled to testify but is now part of next week’s panel format.
“I am seriously considering withdrawing, because it makes me feel as though the report has already been written, with all the focus on the policing aspect of it, and the actions of the commissioner,” Jamie Lee Hamilton told the Georgia Straight.