VANCOUVER - The voices of aboriginals are so important to the public inquiry into the Robert Pickton case that the hearings must be put on hold for three weeks until a new lawyer is found to look out for First Nations' interests, the commissioner overseeing the process said Monday.
Last week, the lawyer appointed to represent aboriginals quit in protest, complaining the inquiry focused too much on the police and not enough on aboriginal women — a group that overwhelmingly accounted for Pickton's victims.
The inquiry will now resume April 2, several weeks before hearings are currently scheduled to conclude, making it even more difficult for commissioner Wally Oppal to report by his deadline of June 30. The province's justice minister said the latest delay won't affect Oppal's deadline.
It's the longest delay in a process that Oppal himself has lamented has been moving far too slowly, but he told the inquiry that he couldn't carry on without a lawyer to represent First Nations.
"The relationship between the criminal justice system in general and the police in particular and the aboriginal communities needs a critical examination," he told the inquiry.
Oppal had already admitted he was facing a tight deadline, asking the province's attorney general last year to give him until the end of 2012 to report. Instead, he was given until the end of June.
Commission counsel Art Vertlieb would not say whether the latest delay would prompt Oppal to ask Justice Minister Shirley Bond for more time.
"If we can't get it done in the time frame, then we'll deal with it," he told reporters. "Right now, we're just going to keep pressing on. We've made a huge amount of progress."
Regardless, Bond moved quickly to head off any requests for additional time, insisting Oppal can still finish his work before the summer.
"It's important for British Columbians that these recommendations come back to the government in what I believe is a very reasonable period of time," Bond told reporters in Victoria on Monday.
She noted the government has spent more than $4 million so far on the inquiry, and she said it's reasonable to expect the process will be finished by June.
Bond rejected concerns the inquiry has become too focused on the police.
"This is about police conduct," said Bond. "It's about police practices."
Robyn Gervais, the lawyer appointed to advance the interests of the aboriginal community, quit last week, saying the hearings were dominated by evidence from police, with few aboriginal witnesses.
Gervais was appointed last year after the provincial government denied Oppal's recommendation that several advocacy groups receive legal funding. Another lawyer was appointed to represent the interests of Downtown Eastside residents, though he remains at the hearings.
Since that funding decision, First Nations have largely boycotted the inquiry.
Ed John, the grand chief of the First Nations Summit, told Oppal last week he didn't believe the inquiry could meet its mandate without aboriginal representation and announced his group was formally withdrawing. The First Nations Summit was one of the last aboriginal groups still participating.
On Monday, Oppal said he spent a great deal of time reflecting on what Gervais and John had told him.
"No one would disagree that this process needs — in fact, demands — representation of the families of 25 missing and murdered women, many of whom were aboriginal," he said.
He said the families, the aboriginal community, the community of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, and the vulnerable women all need a voice.
"While I believe that each community is being respected and heard, it is clear that that is not an opinion that is shared by all," Oppal said. "This means we all have work to do in this area."
Vertlieb said the commission has been in contact with a respected lawyer who may take the job, but he wouldn't release the lawyer's name until the commission had given its approval.
He said he believed an experienced lawyer would be able to get up to speed on the information presented at the inquiry during the three weeks the commission is off.
In January, Oppal expressed concerns about an army of high-profile lawyers representing police interests attending the hearing.
Oppal, a former B.C. Appeal Court judge, said the courts were bogged down by long submissions and arguments, and the inquiry was at risk of doing the same.
He has until June 30 to finish his report on why it took police so long to catch Pickton.
Before adjourning, the commission finished the cross-examination of a panel of four retired Vancouver police officers on Monday.
Former Const. Dave Dickson, who was the force's liaison with sex workers in the 1990s, said the situation for women in the Downtown Eastside has grown more dangerous.
Dickson was questioned by Cameron Ward, a lawyer representing many of the families of Pickton's victims.
"Now, conditions are such that another Pickton, another predator could more easily get away with taking women and killing them. Fair?" Ward asked.
"I don't think that's fair," Dickson replied. "It's probably as easy as it was back then to do that, but now the women unfortunately are subjected to a lot of violence from the different dealers down there."
He said the women are being beaten, sexually assaulted or have had their hair shaved off for drug debts as low as $30 or $40.
The DNA of 33 women was found on the Pickton pig farm in Port Coquitlam, B.C., although the serial killer told an undercover officer that he killed 49 women.
He was first accused of killing 26 women, but was eventually convicted of six counts of second-degree murder.