The British Columbia Missing Women Commission of Inquiry is standing down for three weeks so that a new lawyer can be found to represent aboriginal interests in the wake of the withdrawal of attorney Robyn Gervais, who announced her resignation on March 5.
Inquiry commissioner Wally Oppal will appoint the new independent counsel, the commission said in its March 12 announcement.
“It’s important that [aboriginal] interests be looked after, that’s something he has insisted on having,” lead commission counsel Art Vertlieb said of Oppal in an interview with Indian Country Today Media Network.
The replacement lawyer needs 20-plus years of courtroom experience and must have represented aboriginal issues, Vertlieb said.
“We’ve identified several possible candidates,” he said. “We’re working with someone and should have an announcement soon.”
The development follows last week’s resignation of Métis lawyer Gervais, who was appointed by Oppal to represent aboriginal interests. She cited delays in aboriginal testimony, lack of support from the aboriginal community and the disproportionate focus on police evidence as reasons for her departure.
Gervais’s resignation was followed by the near simultaneous withdrawal of the B.C. First Nations Summit, the lone aboriginal group left participating in the inquiry after several disengaged last year over funding issues.
“Given that these hearings are largely about missing and murdered aboriginal women, I feel I shouldn’t have to fight to have the voices of the aboriginal heard,” Gervais said at the time.
The inquiry is set to resume April 2, just 13 weeks before the hearings are scheduled to conclude on June 2. Despite the pause in proceedings, Oppal won’t be asking for any more time for the inquiry.
“We’ll maintain our schedule and press ahead,” Vertlieb said. “We’ll deal with that later if it becomes essential.”
The inquiry has already received a six-month extension.
“We’ve been at this, it will be a year and a half, and at this point we are in excess of $4 million of taxpayers’ money,” B.C. Justice Minister Shirley Bond told the Surrey Leader. “So while I don’t want to rush the process, I think there is a reasonable expectation that this work should be completed in June.”
The search for a new lawyer is too little and too late, said Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of B.C. Chiefs.
“It’s so late in the process that it is virtually impossible to parachute somebody in at the 11th hour who can be of useful service,” Phillip said. “With all the police testimony that is left we’re out of time” for aboriginal testimony.
The provincial government’s decision a year ago not to fund legal counsel for aboriginal groups foreshadowed the debacle to come, Phillip said.
”The inquiry was completely compromised at that point,” Phillip said. “Our voice has been relegated to the sidelines since then.”
Phillip was critical of Bond’s assertion’s about the inquiry, calling it “misguided.”
“Placing fiscal prudence over aboriginal women who were murdered by Pickton in the most brutal way is a disturbing sense of priority,” he said. “This is a deep disappointment to the groups who brought about the inquiry to begin with.”