Independent counsel Jason Gratl has prepared a damning report to the B.C. Missing Women's Inquiry that's looking into the years before the arrest of convicted killer Robert William Pickton. Titled "Wouldn't Piss On Them If They Were on Fire": How Discrimination Against Sex Workers, Drug Users and Aboriginal Women Enabled a Serial Killer," it pulls few punches.
Indifference. Ineptitude. Discrimination. These words reverberate throughout the document.
While Gratl levels those criticisms at both the Vancouver police and the RCMP, his harshest critiques at least on paper, appear to be directed at the city force. Gratl told me that the report should not be viewed as any vindication of the RCMP.
"I would say the VPD receives the bulk of the criticism, but the comments regarding the provincial RCMP service, the major crime squad, are equally damning but shorter because we heard very little about what they were doing. Because in fact they did next to nothing."
Gratl also made the point that he was representing the Downtown Eastside at the inquiry, and the RCMP had much less interaction with the DTES than Vancouver police.
His issues with the VPD include asserting that those in management were not only strongly and actively opposed to a serial killer investigation, but at times went so far as to engage in deceptive practices throughout that investigation. They then engaged in a smear campaign against victims' families and police critics following Pickton's arrest. Chapter 3 of the report is titled "Suppression of Recognition of a Serial Killer."
'BREACH OF PUBLIC TRUST'
Among the events it describes is the VPD's deliberate deception of the B.C. attorney general on the existence of a serial killer. Gratl's report says it is "a breach of public trust of the highest order, is contrary to the Rule of Law, is a violation of the principles of civilian oversight, and deserves the highest level of censure available to a Commission of Inquiry under the Public Inquiry Act."
Moreover, while Gratl points to many instances of discrimination and ineptitude on behalf of individuals, his report also repeatedly points to the low priority and worth that were placed on the investigation by Vancouver police brass. Investigations into the missing women were inadequately resourced, and frequently had their resources poached or reassigned.
In addition to institutional and individual prejudices that hindered investigations, particularly within the Missing Person's Unit, funds and officers were also in short supply. The initial assignment of the investigation of missing women to the unit, described by Sgt. Mackay-Dunn as a "dumping ground for the walking wounded" in his appearance before the inquiry, is yet another suggestion of the lack of gravity with which the investigation was treated for years.
At the same time, vastly greater resources that amounted to millions of dollars were devoted to investigations such as a task force on home invasions, and the Downtown Eastside Extraordinary Police (DEEP) program which aimed to raise property values. Gratl's report thus suggests a greater importance was placed on landowners' concerns and property values than on the lives of missing sex trade workers, many of them aboriginal.
Also hindering the probe were repeated failures of communication, both between officers investigating the missing women themselves, and between the investigators and other units which might have helped them, such as the Vancouver Police Native Liaison Society. These marked failures ensured that information discovered was often lost or squandered.
Gratl pays less attention to failures to communicate between the VPD and the RCMP, but these failures were a key point raised by reports of the internal inquiries of both forces.
VPD spokesman Cst. Lindsey Houghton's response to the report was:
Thank you for your inquiry, however, since we have been strong advocates from the beginning for a full and thorough Inquiry we would now find it disrespectful of the process if we were to comment while the Inquiry continued. Out of respect for the inquiry we will reserve comments until after the inquiry has concluded with the release of Commissioner Wally Oppal's report.
As for Gratl, he is not without his critics. Reached for comment earlier this week regarding inquiry fees, Toronto lawyer Eddie Greenspan, who represented former VPD chief Terry Blythe at the inquiry, took the opportunity to say he was seriously offended by some lawyers in this case: "They went out to sully the reputation of this commission, and they may have succeeded."
More than once during the inquiry, Greenspan sparred with lawyer Cameron Ward, who represented the families of missing women. His reference to lawyers indicates to this blogger that his criticism is also meant for Gratl and his allegations of deception and smears by the VPD.
Gratl, however, questioned whether Greenspan had meant that criticism for anyone other than Ward given that Gratl had challenged him on just that point in the inquiry room and he did not re-voice those criticisms at the time.
Gratl was appointed as Independent Counsel to the inquiry a year ago, after funding was denied to 13 groups representing stake holders on the DTES by then Attorney General Barry Penner. Gratl's report will be used by Oppal as he prepares his final report for the government.
Gratl's report concludes with 37 recommendations for positive change. Among them are:
• Financial compensation for the children and grandchildren of the missing women. Money is no substitute for a mother's presence, love and support, but financial compensation may assist the children of the missing women to build their lives and advance the interests of their own families.
• The creation of a province-wide missing persons intake system and a civilian operated missing persons system with clear and formal rules to transfer investigations to the appropriate police service if foul play is suspected.
• Decriminalization and regulation of possession and trafficking of heroin and cocaine, allowing at a minimum for physician-prescribed heroin and cocaine.
• Implementing a sex worker liaison unit operating seven days a week throughout the day and night.
• Cease the harassment of sex workers with checks, searches, and involuntary information collection.
• That the Minister of Justice direct the Director of Police Services to conduct an audit of VPD and RCMP policies and practices to identify ways to reduce and eliminate racism and discrimination against groups and individuals at risk of serious violence, including sex workers and drug addicts.
• Funding to reopen the Vancouver Police Native Liaison Office under civilian direction and with an investigative mandate.
• Amendment of municipal bylaws to create zoning and licenses for sex work and brothels
"I never count myself an optimist. But even if one of those 37 recommendations gets picked up by the commissioner I will have done my job," said Gratl.
Now it is time to hope that Oppal will pick up many of these recommendations. They form a reasoned, considered and ambitious conclusion to Gratl's report. It's a shame that such qualities are not the ones that characterized the investigation it details.
DISCLOSURE: Reive Doig has served on the PACE board as a volunteer for the past year and is currently vice chair.