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Missing women's inquiry compromise not enough, say DTES, First Nations groups

The Missing Women's Commission of Inquiry has announced a compromise with interest groups that were denied government funding for their legal representation at the hearings, some of which have already pulled out -- but the groups involved say it's not enough.

At the end of July, the B.C. government announced in a letter to the inquiry's commissioner, Wally Oppal, that it did not have enough funding for all the groups that would like to be legally represented at the inquiry's hearings.

But by shifting around some money last week, the commission announced that it will be able to provide up to four attorneys to represent two broad interest groups involved in the case -- the DTES community and Aboriginal groups.

A number of the groups -- some of which have already withdrawn from the hearings -- say that's not much of a compromise.

"The proposal that the commissioner is offering to the groups is almost ridiculous. It cannot replace appropriate funding and appropriate resources for all the groups to participate," Hilla Kerner said, who represents the Women’s Equality and Security Coalition, a group who formally pulled out of the inquiry the same day.

More than half of the 13 groups that had sought funding withdrew following a letter July 22 from Deputy Attorney General David Loukidelis, which said there would be no funding available for the groups. They say that they have been effectively shut-out from the hearing process phase in the inquiry, which is set to begin Oct. 11.

"One or two lawyers that the commissioner is able to pay will not be able to present a different crucial interest of the different groups that were granted standing within the inquiry," Kerner said.

Lawyers are needed to sift through hundreds of documents and to hear testimony and examine witnesses.

Groups were advised in the letter that although they will not receive funding to provide for legal representation, they can still participate by attending the information hearing.

Kate Gibson, advocate for W.I.S.H., a women's drop-in shelter in the DTES, said not being able to participate in the hearing "excludes the voices of the individual women and of sex workers and of organizations and allies who have worked with and worked alongside the women who were most affected and continue to be most affected -- including the women who were murdered."

Also Friday, the commission announced it would be holding public forums across the province between Sept. 12 and 22 as part of the "research" phase of the inquiry.

According to a statement by the commission, the forums will help inform the commissioner's report and recommendations, taking into account "the situation in specific communities."

"The Commission believes it is important to hear directly from family members who have been most affected by the tragedy of murdered and missing women," they wrote.

Two days before, B.C. Chief Jackie Thomas of the Saik'uz First Nation near Vanderhoof, B.C. said in a media report that the missing women's inquiry is not welcome in her community because the commission isn't a meaningful exercise.

When asked whether the inquiry can still be effective without the various interest groups well represented, Chris Freimond of the Commission said, "In a way, it's second best for those groups to be represented by their own lawyers but at least it does mean, in a broad sense, those interests will have a voice."

In a document released by the B.C. Attorney General last November, over $102 million has already been spent on expenditures related to the Pickton investigation. The bulk, almost $70 million, went to policing services.

The cost to fund these groups with legal representation would set the B.C. government back another $1.5 million.

Carrie Swiggum is completing a practicum at The Tyee.

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