The British Columbia Civil Liberties Association and Amnesty International have officially opted out of participation in hearings before the provincial Missing Women Commission of Inquiry, scheduled to begin on October 11.
A few days earlier, two major women’s groups from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside—the Women’s Memorial March Committee (WMMC) and the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre (DEWC)—withdrew as well, calling it a “sham inquiry” in a statement.
To date 20 of the 21 groups granted standing before the commission have pulled out, according to Postmedia News. Several groups initially left due to lack of funding when the provincial government refused to allocate about $1.5 million to help them defray the legal expenses associated with presenting evidence and testimony to the commission. Soon after, the commission hired two lawyers and got two more to work pro bono to represent the groups.
“Unfortunately, this does not correct the damage, but instead adds another layer to the discrimination,” said Jeannette Corbiere Lavell, president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, in a statement. “Aboriginal women are now in the position of having their interests ostensibly represented by counsel who owe them no responsibility, over whom they have no control, and whom they do not instruct. The police, the RCMP, and the Criminal Justice Branch of the Attorney General’s Ministry are not represented by “independent” counsel, but rather by counsel whom they have chosen and can instruct. NWAC has been treated as though it, and the women it represents, are children, neither fully able to have a voice of their own nor meriting an equal voice with the government actors whose conduct is under examination.”
The process and the commission have been under fire since the beginning, fraught with credibility issues. The British Columbia government’s refusal to fund the groups that were granted standing, even when head commissioner Wally Oppal recommended the assistance, has gutted the proceedings, the groups feel.
“We could not allow our presence to be seen as supporting a process that has gone so far off-track,” said Amnesty International Canada secretary general Alex Neve, Postmedia News reported. “It’s not [about having] a level playing field—we’re not even on the same field.”
Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs told Postmedia News that he was “bitterly, bitterly disappointed in this government and [Premier] Christy Clark’s failure to intervene to save this inquiry’s credibility.”
He added, “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.”
The hearings are looking into the police’s failure to apprehend serial killer Robert Pickton as he trolled Vancouver’s Downtown East Side for years, murdering mostly aboriginal women. More than 600 aboriginal women have gone missing or been murdered, according to official statistics, though the number has been pegged at 700 or more by groups representing victims and their families. May of the disappearances and killings, which have occurred over several years, go unsolved, or worse, un-investigated.
Besides boycotting, the groups have also appealed to the United Nations for assistance in combatting what they call discriminatory practices. The NWAC on September 27 asked 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, The Tyee reported.
Officials from the government of British Columbia Premier Christy Clark have said the refusal is purely budgetary.