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Reive Doig

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Missing Women's Inquiry: Wally Oppal's Good Intentions

Posted: 12/20/2012 1:51 pm

Wally Oppal is a good man. He's a good judge, as evidenced by his time on the bench and his bold heading of the Independent Commission of Inquiry into Policing in British Columbia, more commonly known as the Oppal Inquiry, in the early '90s.

And, of course, the former attorney general of B.C. is also a good politician.

The hope on the part of those who called Vancouver's murdered women family and friends, the hope of those who work on the Downtown Eastside, or who work to better the lives of those who do, was that the good man, the good judge, would show up to chair the Missing Women's Commission of Inquiry.

He did, and it was evident in the empathy he put out to the families of the victims who appeared day in and day out in the inquiry room; but in the end it was the good politician who wrote the nearly 1,500-page report titled "Forsaken."

It's aptly titled, as Oppal observes, "the missing and murdered women were forsaken twice: once by society at large and again by the police."

That fact is necessary for a full understanding, but using it to say that if we're all responsible then no individuals are responsible for the often-botched investigation is not. There are officers and civilian staff of both the RCMP and the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) who failed to do their duties diligently. There was overt discrimination by both civilian employees and officers of the VPD that has been called to attention many times during the inquiry. In short, there is fault to be found.

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Yes, the prejudices faced by the missing women were systemic and institutional, but systems and institutions are made up of individuals, and ultimately some of them should be found responsible.

Repeatedly, Oppal fails to do so. The judge has failed to judge. Imagine if during his time on the bench he'd been willing to hear such damning evidence, and then at the end of the trial declared that no sentence should be passed because, after all, in the end it's society's fault.

One of the most glaring examples of this is Oppal's review of the conduct of Sandy Cameron, a civilian employee of the VPD's Missing Person's Unit. As the final report sums up, she "was rude, abrasive, made racist remarks and was biased against women engaged in the sex trade and people with addictions."
Oppal goes on to "...conclude that Ms. Cameron's comments had a significant adverse impact on the ability of family members and friends to communicate with the VPD and thereby directly and detrimentally affected the investigations. The impact was a long-lasting one."

Strong words. But in the end they are words of little impact. "It is inappropriate to single Ms. Cameron out, however. The problems went beyond a single individual," Oppal writes. He seems to believe that if there's not one single, solitary individual to blame we won't blame any of them.

What of the Crown counsel who decided not to pursue charges against Pickton, after a naked and handcuffed sex worker had escaped a knife attack from him? The terms of reference of the inquiry forced Oppal to address this in a "neutral and non-evaluative manner."

The former attorney general wasn't so restricted in how he was allowed to evaluate the police. Yet successive VPD Chief Constables Bruce Chambers and Terry Blythe get a pass from Oppal. So too does Inspector Fred Biddlecombe, who repeatedly insisted that investigators look for people who'd simply gone missing, not for evidence of foul play.

And what of the VPD brass who clung to the idea that the missing women were transients who had simply left the city, not bothering to check in with family or friends, and in some cases leaving welfare cheques behind, despite experts telling them the transient notion of sex workers was a myth? Not really to blame.

And those higher-ups in the department who dismissed the assertions of their own geographic profiling expert, Det. Insp. Kim Rossmo, that a serial killer was at work, maintaining that if there were no bodies there was no crime? We can't lay the blame at their doorstep according to Oppal.

Despite some strong words, none of them in the end are to be held responsible for their actions, actions which in part allowed serial killer Robert Pickton to go on murdering women.

Before anyone says, "Well, that's all in the past," it should be noted that we now know that at the time Pickton was prowling the DTES murdering women, at least two other serial murderers were killing in the Lower Mainland.

One who murdered five women in the Mount Pleasant area, and another responsible for three bodies found near Mission in the Fraser Valley. While one of those cases is now closed — an identified suspect being deceased — the other case is still open. Given what we know about the Pickton investigation it's worth asking if that murderer might remain unidentified because of mismanagement and ineptitude on the part of police.

Unfortunately for the murdered women of the DTES, and those who still stroll its streets and alleys, Oppal doesn't ask that question, let alone answer it.

There is some hope to be taken from Oppal's report, for it appears that the 65 recommendations it contains were written by the good man and the good judge.

Yet amongst those who work on the DTES side, doing sex work or trying to make better the lives of those who do it, that hope is severely tempered. Because it's going to take good men and women to see those recommendations come to fruition, and there's a belief that in Victoria, and in the higher echelons of both the RCMP and the Vancouver Police Department, there are still fewer good men and women than there are good politicians.

But you be the judge of that. Because it's clear that Wally Oppal won't.

Loading Slideshow...
  • Sereena Abotsway

    Born Aug. 20, 1971, Abotsway suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome and lived with a foster family most of her life. She was 29 when she was last seen in August 2001. Robert Pickton was convicted of her murder in 2007.

  • Georgina Papin

    Born March 11, 1964, Papin had seven children. She was last seen in March 1999. Robert Pickton was convicted of her murder in 2007.

  • Mona Wilson

    Born Jan. 13, 1975, Wilson had a son. She was last seen in November 2001. Robert Pickton was convicted of her murder in 2007.

  • Marnie Frey

    Born Aug. 30, 1973 in Campbell River, B.C. Her daughter, Brittney, was born five years before she disappeared and gave an impact statement at Pickton's trial. Frey was last seen in August 1997. Robert Pickton was convicted of her murder in 2007.

  • Brenda Wolfe

    Born Oct. 20, 1968, Wolfe had a son. She was last seen in February 1999. Robert Pickton was convicted of her murder in 2007.

  • Andrea Joesbury

    Born Nov. 6, 1978, in Victoria. Joesbury had a daughter. She was last seen in June 2001. Robert Pickton was convicted of her murder in 2007.

  • Cara Ellis

    Known on the street as Nicky Trimble, Ellis was born April 13, 1971 and was last seen in January 1997. Robert Pickton was charged with her murder but the charge was stayed in 2010.

  • Andrea Borhaven

    Born Jan. 19, 1972 in Armstrong, B.C. Borhaven was reported missing to police on May 18, 1999, but was last seen in 1997. Robert Pickton was charged with her murder but the charge was stayed in 2010.

  • Kerry Koski

    Born Aug. 14, 1959, Koski had three daughters. She was last seen Jan. 7, 1998. Robert Pickton was charged with her murder but the charge was stayed in 2010.

  • Wendy Crawford

    Born April 21, 1956, Crawford had a son and a daughter. She was last seen in December 1999. Robert Pickton was charged with her murder but the charge was stayed in 2010.

  • Debra Jones

    Born in 1957, she was last seen in December 2000. Robert Pickton was charged with her murder but the charge was stayed in 2010.

  • Tiffany Drew

    Born Jan. 31, 1975, Drew had three children. She was last seen March 2000. Robert Pickton was charged with her murder but the charge was stayed in 2010.

  • Sarah DeVries

    Born May 12, 1969, to a troubled mother and adopted at 11 months. De Vries' journals and poetry have been widely published since she was last seen April 21, 1998. Her sister, Maggie de Vries, wrote about her sister in the award-winning book Missing Sarah. Robert Pickton was charged with her murder but the charge was stayed in 2010.

  • Cynthia (Cindy) Feliks

    Born Dec. 12, 1954 in Detroit, Feliks was a mother and grandmother. She was last seen in December 1997. Robert Pickton was charged with her murder but the charge was stayed in 2010.

  • Angela Jardine

    Born Dec. 12, 1954 in Detroit, Feliks was a mother and grandmother. She was last seen in December 1997. Robert Pickton was charged with her murder but the charge was stayed in 2010.

  • Diana Melnick

    Born Aug. 26, 1975, Melnick was last seen Dec. 27, 1995. Robert Pickton was charged with her murder but the charge was stayed in 2010.

  • Jacqueline McDonnell

    Born June 6, 1976, McDonell had a daughter. She was last seen Jan. 16, 1999. Robert Pickton was charged with her murder but the charge was stayed in 2010.

  • Dianne Rock

    Born Sept. 2, 1967, Rock had five children. She was last seen in October 2001. Robert Pickton was charged with her murder but the charge was stayed in 2010.

  • Heather Bottomley

    Born Aug. 17, 1976, Bottomley had two children. She was last seen April 2001. Robert Pickton was charged with her murder but the charge was stayed in 2010.

  • Jennifer Furminger

    Born Oct. 22, 1971, Furminger grew up in St. Catharine's, Ont. She had a son and police say she was last seen in December 1999. Robert Pickton was charged with her murder but the charge was stayed in 2010.

  • Helen Hallmark

    Born June 24, 1966, Hallmark had a daughter. She was last seen June 15, 1997. Robert Pickton was charged with her murder but the charge was stayed in 2010.

  • Patricia Johnson

    Born Dec. 2, 1975. Johnson had a son and a daughter, and was last seen March 2001. Robert Pickton was charged with her murder but the charge was stayed in 2010.

  • Heather Chinnock

    Born Nov. 10, 1970 in Denver, Colo. She had two children. She was last seen April 2001. Robert Pickton was charged with her murder but the charge was stayed in 2010.

  • Tanya Holyk

    Born Dec. 8. 1975, Holyk had a son. She was last Oct. 29, 1996. Robert Pickton was charged with her murder but the charge was stayed in 2010.

  • Sherry Irving

    Born March 19, 1973, Irving was last seen in April 1997. Robert Pickton was charged with her murder but the charge was stayed in 2010.

  • Inga Hall

    Born in 1952 in Germany, Hall had two daughters and two granddaughters. She was last seen in February 1998. Robert Pickton was charged with her murder but the charge was stayed in 2010.

  • Nancy Clark

    Born July 29, 1966, Clark was last seen Aug. 22, 1991 and reported missing to Victoria police the following day. Her DNA was found on Robert Pickton's farm but no charge was ever laid in her case.

  • Stephanie Lane

    Born May 28, 1976, Lane grew up in Vancouver. She was 20 years old and had recently given birth to her only son when she disappeared from the Downtown Eastside in January of 1997. Her DNA was found on Robert Pickton's farm but there was never any charge in her case.

  • Dawn Crey

    Born Oct. 26, 1958, Crey was a member of the Sto:lo First Nation near Chilliwack, B.C., and had a son. She was last seen in November of 2000. Her DNA was found on Robert Pickton's farm but no charge was ever laid in her case.

  • Jacqueline Murdock

    Born Jan. 28, 1971, Murdock was the youngest daughter of a large First Nation family in Fort St. James. She had four children. She was last seen on Aug. 13, 1997. Her DNA was found on Robert Pickton's farm but no charge was ever laid in her case.

  • Sharon Abraham

    Last seen in 2000. Her DNA was found on Robert Pickton's farm but no charge was ever laid in her case.

  • Yvonne Boen

    Born Nov. 30, 1967, Boen had a son. She was last seen in March of 2001. Her DNA was found on Robert Pickton's farm but no charge was ever laid in her case.

 
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