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Rights + Justice

Two DTES Groups Pull Out of Missing Women Commission

Calling inquiry a 'sham', women's organizations granted full standing quit, vow protest.

Angela Sterritt 3 Oct

Angela Sterritt is a CBC and independent journalist based in Vancouver.

Two leading Vancouver Downtown Eastside women's groups have withdrawn from the B.C.'s Missing Women Commission, calling it a "sham inquiry."

The Women's Memorial March Committee (WMMC) and the Downtown Eastside Women's Centre (DEWC) -- granted full standing as a single participant -- released a media statement this morning saying they will not be endorsing nor participating in the Pickton Inquiry.

"We have been raising awareness on this issue for over 20 years and demanding an inquiry for decades, but this sham inquiry is flawed and unjust. We cannot endorse it," states Carol Martin, victim services worker at the Downtown Eastside Women's Centre.

The groups are denouncing the inquiry and will call for a "new fair, just, and inclusive inquiry that centers the voices and experiences and leadership of women in the DTES," the release says.

In the judicial inquiry, the commission will look at the police conduct surrounding the gruesome crimes committed by Robert "Willie" Pickton -- the murders of 33 women in five years, all coming from the DTES. It will also probe into why in 1998, the attorney general's office stayed attempted-murder charges against him.

According to the release, Diane Wood, a member of the Women's Memorial March Committee says: "We have essentially been shut out from this sham inquiry that is actually supposed to be about us and our experiences. It is vital to this inquiry that the voices of women and the community be front and centre when determining its recommendations. Without a commitment to the participation of women from the Downtown Eastside, the inquiry is not legitimate and has no credibility."

'We will not be intervening': Minister Bond

The news comes just days after 20 of the 21 groups provided standing at the commission released a letter to Premier Christy Clark, pleading for her intervention to "fix the broken process." They gave her an October 5 deadline to respond, but solicitor general Shirley Bond jumped to the task the same day.

"Let me be clear, we will not be intervening in the work of the commission. Given the budget challenges the ministry is facing, we have made our priority funding legal counsel for the families of the murdered and missing women," her statement read.

Bond said she expects the commission to complete its work by Dec. 31, 2011 and said the government will only carefully consider an extension on the request of the commissioner.

The WMMC and the DEWC coalition is the seventh to vacate the commission proceedings, with the most recent group -- Pivot Legal Society -- whose coalition members BCCLA and Amnesty International are still on the record as participating, departing last week.

Given the number of groups pulling out, some say it gleans evidence that the commission isn't working.

'Unfair and discriminatory': NWAC's Lavell

"So many people are feeling it's futile, and it's the integrity of the commission being questioned," says NWAC president Jeannette Corbiere Lavell. The Native Women's Association of Canada was the only Aboriginal organization granted full participation at the inquiry, but had to withdraw due to a lack of legal funding.

"It's unfair and discriminatory to the most vulnerable people in Canada -- Aboriginal women," said Lavell in a telephone interview. "Strong questions need to be asked and we don't feel that the counsel for the VPD, RCMP and the justice department are going to ask those questions due to the embarrassment it could cause them." On September 27, NWAC called on three United Nations Special Rapporteurs on Violence Against Women, the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Independence of Judges and Lawyers to make an urgent joint appeal to Canada for last minute funds.

A letter sent to B.C.'s attorney general last month expressed synonymous concerns over the province's refusal to fund all participants. It was signed by a group of prominent lawyers and academics who have been commission counsel or advisers at a number of public inquiries, including the inquiry into the bombing of Air India Flight 182, the Maher Arar inquiry, and the Ipperwash inquiry into the killing of Dudley George.

"We can identify no other case in Canada where a government, having appointed a commission of inquiry, then, in effect, overturned a commissioner's decision on standing by refusing funding for participation," it said.

In response, solicitor general Shirley Bond explained her government's commitment to the commission and cited the $1.9 million investment into it.

Just one week until the Vancouver hearings begin, and anger in the Downtown Eastside is rising. Residents are concerned that the original intent of the Commission is losing ground.

"We are sick of this. This inquiry was supposed to be about a measure of justice for us and the hope that things would change down here, but it is just more of the same injustices," says Beatrice Starr, who has resided in the Downtown Eastside for 30 years and whose sister and niece were both murdered.

The WMCC and DEWC press release lists several factors among the reasons for dropping out -- specifically citing a lack of transparency, an inaccessible process, and a disregard for vulnerable witnesses as top reasons. The groups also say that the study commission portion cannot be a replacement for a full and meaningful inquiry.

The coalition announced a rally at the beginning of the hearings on Oct. 11, 2011 at 10 a.m. at 701 West Georgia.

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