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First day of missing women hearings marred by protests, more withdrawals

Hearings of the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry began in downtown Vancouver today, despite street protests and the withdrawal of four more standing parties.

Commission Wally Oppal, charged with investigating police and prosecutorial conduct during the investigation and trial of serial killer Robert Pickton, commenced hearings at 10 a.m. this morning.

Outside the federal courthouse, demonstrators chanted and blocked traffic for several hours, protesting a perceived lack of representation, support, and protection for Downtown Eastside community members within the inquiry process.

Three hours before the hearings began, four groups granted standing before the commission withdrew their participation and support from the proceedings.

PACE Society, WISH Drop-In Centre, Sex Workers Alliance of Vancouver (SWAV) join 12 other groups that have walked away from the Commission process to date. The Assembly of First Nations also announced their withdrawal this morning in a separate written statement.

In a press release issued this morning, the Coalition of Sex Worker-Serving Organizations, composed of PACE, WISH, and SWAV, explained that "participation is impossible due to the lack of procedural fairness and funding."

"It is abundantly clear that this Inquiry will be extremely adversarial, that women will not have a strong role in the process and that the organizations which served those women whose fate was cast so long ago will be excluded," the press release continues.

The Coalition's criticisms mirror those of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association and Amnesty International. Last Friday, both civil rights groups announced their withdrawal from the Commission proceedings.

The provincial government has been accused of providing disproportionate legal support to police officers and prosecutors, while refusing to guarantee that statements made by sex-workers and other Downtown Eastside community members testifying before the Commission will not be used against them in future prosecution.

Solicitor General Shirley Bond responded to these criticisms by explaining that legal representation is not required for participation in the inquiry and that government funding for lawyers has been "prioritized for those who have been directly impacted by the matter being considered by the commission -- that is, namely the families of those missing or murdered women."

Currently, the government is funding fourteen lawyers to represent police and government groups. There are four lawyers representing the interests of the Downtown Eastside community, two of whom are working pro bono.

Parties still participating in inquiry include the Vancouver Police Department, the provincial Criminal Justice Branch, Walk4Justice, Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, and the families of 17 murdered or missing women.

Ben Christopher reports for The Tyee.

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