08/20/2012 12:28 EDT | Updated 10/20/2012 05:12 EDT

B.C. Missing Women's Inquiry Budget: Who Is Prostituting Themselves Here?

Compare the budget for B.C.'s Missing Women's Inquiry (approaching $7 million) and the amounts charged by those working for the commission with what's spent by frontline charities like WISH and PACE that actually work with sex trade workers in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside (DTES.)

PACE and WISH are two of the 13 advocacy groups that were denied funding to participate in the inquiry by the B.C. government. At the time, former B.C. Attorney General Barry Penner said it was because of trying economic times, that there were limits to taxpayer funding for the inquiry, specifically for lawyers for advocacy groups.

What a sick joke that seems like now.

Those "limited" public funds paid inquiry Commissioner Wally Oppal $324,267 for the most recent fiscal year. That's $20,000 short of what WISH allocates annually for its Drop-In Centre. The centre is open seven nights a week from 6-11 p.m., and serves 80 to 100 dinners each night, while offering clean clothing and showers. It also provides health-care services two nights a week, and a learning centre three nights a week. That's a lot of services and meals for less than $1,000 a day; Oppal's per diem is reported to be $1,500.

Senior commission counsel Art Vertlieb billed the province $483,741 for his work on the inquiry. If you put that together with the $482,139 billed by associate counsel Karey Brooks and her law firm you could fund WISH, with its $900,000 budget, for an entire year, and still have enough left over to fund PACE for a season.

The amount billed by Oppal's researcher, first-year lawyer Jessica McKeachie, would completely fund PACE -- for all its outreach work, violence prevention programs, and ongoing day-to-day support for crisis issues, for more than a year. That annual budget comes in at $192,000, just shy of the $203,134 Ms. McKeachie billed the province.


The frankly obscene amounts paid out to commission counsel and staff have shocked those working with survival sex trade workers on the front lines and those doing advocacy work on their behalf.

"I don't feel it's inappropriate for senior counsel to be making what is considered a fair wage for their expertise, but it reaches a point where anyone would have to ask themselves: is this ethical?" wonders criminal defence attorney and PACE president Karen Mirsky.

Even among those working with the commission there was shock and anger. "As far as we know it's unprecedented for the government to reject the recommendation of the Commissioner when it comes to funding," said Neil Chantler, associate counsel to the inquiry and a lawyer at Cameron Ward & Company, which represented the interests of the families of the slain women. Chantler was referring to Oppal's repeated earlier recommendations that funding be made available for those 13 organizations; funding denied first by Penner and then by his replacement as Attorney General, Shirley Bond, because taxpayer dollars were so limited.

It begs the question of whether the 13 groups could have been funded if budgets were better allocated. Others concerned are asking whether the money might have been better spent all together.

Kate Gibson, executive director of WISH, said that her most prevalent thought was what could have been done with the money spent on just a few commission staff:

"For just a fraction of what has been spent here, there could be a 24-hour shelter and drop-in for women who are in the same circumstances as those who were murdered and missing."

Gibson also observed that the sums spent on the commission were far from limited to the fees charged by counsel and the wages of staff. "The part of their offices I saw were very upscale with etched glass on the front door, beautiful wood boardroom tables and a fabulous view of the mountains."

It's a contrast to the conditions that WISH and PACE work out of on the DTES. PACE is located in a building with constant maintenance problems. Pipes leaking sewage into a room used by staff and their clients, many of whom are immuno-compromised, is just one ongoing concern.

In the months ahead, as the commission concludes its work and after its recommendations have been laid out, there are going to be some hard questions to answer. Mirksy wonders whether any of the recommendations from the commission will be ones that haven't already been shared, recommended and advocated for by PACE, WISH and others for years.

$7 million dollars later -- not counting fees paid to lawyers representing the RCMP, Vancouver Police Department, and individual officers, nobody seems truly satisfied.

It seems to this blogger that Oppal missed his one true chance to make a difference here. He chose to stay on as commissioner rather than resign after funding for the 13 advocacy groups was denied.

When it became clear that this inquiry was going to be about little more than burnishing the tarnished reputations of those in the police and government, even as police and government insiders were afforded the opportunity to drink at the trough of excess, he did a disservice in continuing to serve.

Meanwhile those on the front lines trying to make a difference in the lives of survival sex trade workers still struggle to fund their work day-to-day.

"There are so many lawyers doing amazing work throughout the province, without any hope of remuneration, just because it is right," said Mirsky. "We serve on boards, we do pro-bono work, and we do our best to help those with socio-economic conditions that preclude them otherwise having access to the law. To think the commission staff, lawyers, have made so much money on the backs of some of the most marginalized women in the country is shameful, and it makes me very sad."

Indeed. Shameful and sad. Who is prostituting themselves here? The answer is not the women working the streets, not the women this inquiry was supposed to help.

DISCLOSURE: Reive Doig has served on the PACE board as a volunteer for the past year and is currently vice chair.