06/06/2012 05:50 EDT | Updated 08/06/2012 05:12 EDT

Pickton inquiry ends as it began, wrapped in controversy

VANCOUVER - The public inquiry into the Robert Pickton case ended Wednesday in much the same way it began, with the sounds of aboriginal drums from protesters on the street seeping into the Federal Court room where commissioner Wally Oppal has heard evidence for the past seven months.

Now, as then, the inquiry has fierce critics, who dismiss it as unfair, incomplete and above all, unable to truly answer why the justice system failed the impoverished sex workers who became Pickton's victims.

Now, as then, families of Pickton's victims remain unconvinced their voices have been heard and listened to, although their complaints have grown louder with each passing day of the hearings and the families now condemn the hearings as a complete failure.

And now, as then, Oppal finds himself defending his work and insisting that despite the controversy that has hung over the inquiry, he will be able to prompt meaningful change to protect sex workers in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

"We were involved here in investigating the policing of the worst mass murderer in Canadian history, and that almost by definition means that emotions ran high, people were upset, people were angry. But we have to live with that when we're investigating something of that magnitude," Oppal told reporters after the final set of closing submissions wrapped up.

"I'm satisfied that we're doing the right thing. I'm satisfied that we'll come up with a positive report so that we can make policing better, so that we can ensure that those people who haven't been listened to will be listened to in the future."

Since last October, Oppal has heard from more than 80 witnesses, including relatives of Pickton's victims, current and former police officers, Crown prosecutors, sex trade workers, advocates, and academics, among others.

He has heard from Vancouver police and RCMP officers who were involved in the various investigations into Pickton explain what they did — and didn't do — and defend how they handled the case.

There have been allegations police officers and civilian workers in both forces acted improperly by ignoring reports of missing sex workers, failing to put together evidence implicating Pickton and, in some instances, allowing racist and sexist attitudes to cloud their work.

The Vancouver police and the RCMP have each offered apologies of sorts, admitting they didn't do enough to catch Pickton, but mostly, they blamed each other. The Vancouver police said the RCMP dropped the ball; the RCMP said the Vancouver police failed to notice a serial killer was operating in their city.

Oppal's report is due Oct. 31. His job for the next five months will be to sort out who to believe, who to blame, and more importantly, what needs to be changed to make life safer for sex workers, many of them aboriginal, who live in the troubled neighbourhood where Pickton hunted his victims.

Those recommendations will likely focus on how police should investigate major cases that spread across jurisdictions, particularly those involving serial killers and sex workers.

Oppal has already suggested he'll recommend improvements to services for prostitutes in the Downtown Eastside, including a drop-in centre for survival sex workers.

"We have five months of intense work," said Oppal, who added he's confident the provincial government and the police will heed his recommendations.

"I am sure that the police got a pretty good flavour of what the poor people in the Downtown Eastside think about the investigations that were done at that time, and I would like to think the police would take those complaints seriously and they would do something about it. I'm confident that they will, but only time will tell."

However, it's an open question whether Oppal's final report, whatever it says, will satisfy his critics.

The families of more than two dozen missing and murdered women have been granted participant status at the inquiry, and they and their lawyer have dismissed the inquiry as an abject failure.

They say the inquiry was hampered by a tight deadline that didn't allow important witnesses to be called and put too much stock in evidence put forward by the police, including several reports reviewing the Pickton file that were written by police officers.

Lori-Ann Ellis, whose sister-in-law Cara Ellis's remains were found on Pickton's farm, said she's filled with disappointment as the inquiry ends.

"It's a great sadness for me on a lot of levels," Ellis said Wednesday outside the inquiry.

"I don't think the inquiry went in the direction it should have gone in, and I don't think the information that we really needed to hear got out there to the public's ears."

Still, Ellis said she clings to hope that something good will come out of the inquiry.

"My sister-in-law is gone, nobody's ever going to bring her back," said Ellis.

"Maybe these girls and their memories can make people move forward and realize something really needs to be done out there."

Police first received the first tips implicating Pickton in the murder of Downtown Eastside sex workers in 1998, but he wasn't arrested until February 2002, when RCMP officers armed with a search warrant related to illegal firearms raided his farm.

He was subsequently convicted of six counts of second-degree murder.

The remains or DNA of 33 women were found on his farm; he once told an undercover police officer that he killed 49.