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Representatives from fifteen Indigenous, Downtown Eastside, and women's organizations gathered for a press conference in the Union of BC Indian Chiefs (UBCIC) boardroom yesterday morning to affirm their boycott of the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry.
The organizations - including Battered Women's Support Services, B.C. Civil Liberties Association, Downtown Eastside Sex Workers United Against Violence, and Aboriginal Front Door - issued an open letter highlighting their concerns to Commissioner Wally Oppal. The organizations also confirmed that they will not participate in the Commission's 'Study Commission' and Policy Forums phase, in response to an invitation letter sent by Oppal requesting that organizations return to the Inquiry.
"Essentially, this Inquiry's not working. It's not working period," said February 14th Women's Memorial March organizer Lisa Yellow-Quill. "We don't see how anything healthy and meaningful can come out of this Inquiry at this time, because it is so tainted."
"The Inquiry was dead at the point - and was completely strangled - when Premier Christy Clark denied funding" for the legal respresentation of Indigenous and women's organizations with critical perspectives and experiences, UBCIC Grand Chief Stewart Phillip told reporters. "[Commissioner Wally] Oppal is beating a dead horse."
Assembly of First Nations (AFN) National Chief Shawn A-in-Chut Atleo also sent a public letter to the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry. He noted that "the Attorney-General's decision to deny funding to interested groups who may have brought evidence to the Inquiry adverse to the official position, amounted to interference with the independence of the Inquiry."
The Open Letter signed by 15 organizations denounces that "25 publicly funded lawyers have represented police and government interests and yet no lawyers were funded to represent the Community Group Participants who originally demanded an inquiry in the first place."
Other concerns highlighted in the Open Letter include limitations of the terms of reference, limited witnesses, impossible timelines, conflict of interest, and allegations of sexism and marginalization of witnesses.
"It's turning out to be a sham," said Marlene George, a Tsimshian activist involved with the Women's Memorial March. "Every week there's a new disclosure."
Last month, lawyer Robyn Gervais resigned from the Inquiry, citing the Commission's refusal to give time and weight to Aboriginal witnesses. She had been hired by the Commission to represent 'Aboriginal interests.' Then over the course of the past week, reports have surfaced about allegations by former Commission staff of sexist conduct and marginalization of witnesses.
The issue of delayed, incomplete disclosure of documentation - another concern highlighted in the Open Letter - was also among the first points of order when the Inquiry hearings resumed yesterday afternoon. Along with lawyers appointed by the Commission to represent Aboriginal and Downtown Eastside interests, lawyer Cameron Ward once again urged the Commission to mark VPD Pickton file investigator Lori Shenher's book manuscript as an exhibit available for public access.
"Yesterday, on Easter Monday, we received 830 pages of evidence," added Ward, who represents the families of 25 missing and murdered women in the Inquiry. "I find that very disappointing."
"We had shelves of evidence [at the Native Liaison Society office]," former Native Liaison Society staff member Morris Bates told the Commission last Monday when he was directed to review a document during Inquiry proceedings. He told the Commission that when the Native Liaison Society was closed in 2003, police removed all of the Society's files, many of which contained documentation that would be relevant to the Inquiry but which he did not see among the exhibits: "They took 24 boxes out of my office personally."
Another concern highlighted by the authors of the Open Letter is the lack of adequate protection for the identities of vulnerable witnesses who had agreed to come forward to the Commission. On Tuesday afternoon, it was announced to the Commission that scheduled witness Ms. Anderson, whose identity is protected by an August 2010 publication ban, has chosen not to appear before the Commission, citing privacy concerns.
Cee Jai Julian, a Carrier-Sekani woman, told reporters about the subsequent challenges and retraumatization throughout the course of her dealings with the RCMP and VPD: "Long before the Pickton investigation began, I had to flee from the farm."
"When I couldn't remember the name of the road the farm was on, I was called an unco-operative witness, and hostile," said Julian of the police. "They didn't believe me because I was Native, I was drug-addicted, a transient, and a prostitute."
Issues of systemic discrimination in police treatment of Indigenous and racialized women, poor and marginalized people, drug users, and sex trade workers have repeatedly come to the surface throughout the Inquiry. Last week at the Inquiry, former Native Liaison Society staff member Freda Ens recalled the experiences of people attempting to report their loved ones missing to the VPD, and the dismissive and disrespectful responses they received from the police.
"I remember when Dorothy Purcell [mother of missing/murdered Tanya Holyk], she said three strikes and you're out. If you're Aboriginal, that's one of them. If you're addicted [to drugs], or if you live in the Downtown Eastside. Any of those - you're out," Ens told the Commission.
The Open Letter also suggests that both police and the Commission refuse to examine allegations of connections between the Pickton brothers, Hell's Angels, and organized crime: "The purpose of the Inquiry is to get to the bottom of why police failed to stop the killings of vulnerable women. The question of whether women were prevented from coming forward to police with information about Pickton because they were intimidated by organized crime connections is highly relevant," states the letter.
"There was a network of people recruiting women to go to the farm. I know this because I went to the farm," denounced Yellow-Quill. "It's cheaper to focus on one man and say 'we're doing something.'"
"We know that one man did not act alone," George told reporters on Tuesday morning.
As the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry hearings wind down this month without yet hearing from relatives of the missing and murdered women and other key witnesses, the 15 organizations signatory to the Open Letter explained that they will not be participating in the Policy Forums to be held by the Commission leading up to the June 30th deadline for the Commission's final report: "We see little value in spending our organizations' extremely limited time and resources contributing to a process that is fundamentally flawed and irredeemably defective."
Participants in the press conference yesterday explained that they are seeking justice in other forms. Yellow-Quill called for a national-level Royal Commission that would include an examination of systemic racism and sexism as root causes behind the disappearance and murder of women, and particularly Indigenous women. Other Indigenous and women's organizations representatives stated that they are also prepared to take the issue to the international level, in their search for the justice they have not found in BC's Commission of Inquiry.
Sandra Cuffe is a freelance journalist and contributing member of the Vancouver Media Co-op.