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Passionate criticism and painful stories rang out at two "Community Engagement Forums" held last week in Vancouver and Prince George, leading up to this year's Missing Women Commission of Inquiry. Outspoken Indigenous women spoke up to demand justice for their beloved family members and friends who have been disappeared or murdered.
Over 100 people gathered in a large hall at the Japanese Language School in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside (DTES) on January 19th. The Commission's process, content, and the naming of Wally Oppal as Commissioner were subject to passionate criticism and scrutiny by those who have been demanding justice for their relatives, friends, and colleagues for decades.
"Mr. Oppal, this has been a long journey for a lot of us women," said Walk4Justice co-founder Bernie Williams.
The creation of the Commission was set in motion in September 2010 by an Order in Council by the BC Lieutenant Governor in Council. The terms of reference instruct the Commission to: inquire into the investigations by police forces into the disappearances of women from the DTES between certain dates; inquire into the Criminal Justice Branch's 1998 stay of proceedings on charges against Robert Pickton; recommend changes concerning investigations into cases of missing women and suspected multiple homicides in BC; recommend changes concerning homicide investigations and inter-agency co-operation.
"Why did it take 69 women [in BC], and over 4000 women nationally?" asked Williams.
Sold into the sex trade in Prince Rupert as a child, Williams' mother was murdered in 1977, along with two of her older sisters in the 1980s. She and other relatives of missing and murdered women out west and across the country have been organizing for decades, demanding justice and, among other things, a public inquiry concerning all missing and murdered women over the past several decades.
"I don't trust this whole Commission. I don't trust it," added Williams, to loud applause by those in attendance.
Similar stories and criticisms were heard over the course of the evening. Many women regretted the choice of date and time for the community engagement forum, given that it was previously postponed but then scheduled for one of the worst days possible. Wednesday, January 19th was a welfare payment day, complicating many local residents' and others' availability to participate.
The terms of reference of the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry were also repeatedly called into question. The inquiry into the way investigations of disappearances of women in the DTES were handled by police forces deals with investigations specifically between January 23, 1997 and February 5, 2002. Furthermore, the infamous Highway of Tears - Highway 16 running east-west in northern BC - is not even mentioned by name in the terms of reference, despite the fact that young women, almost all of them First Nations, have been going missing along that highway for decades.
"I started a movement in northern BC. My niece went missing on the Highway of Tears," began Walk4Justice co-founder Gladys Radek.
"Our people, our families, they need to know what happened," said Radek, echoing the voices of so many relatives of missing and murdered women: "The system is failing."
"I got home at 1:30am last night and I checked my email, and there was a missing poster. That missing poster was the mother of someone who went missing on the Highway of Tears five years ago," she continued, choking back tears.
Radek went to school with Maggie Layton, the women whose photograph appeared on the missing poster in question. Layton had participated in the Walk4Justice and other walks and actions to demand justice for her missing daughter alongside Radek, who walks for her niece Tamara Chipman and for all of the missing women and their families.
At the Community Engagement Forum in Prince George on January 21st, 100 people gathered to speak out about their own experiences, stories, and their missing and murdered daughters, sisters, mothers, nieces, and others. The Commission, and particularly Oppal, was urged to visit the communities along the Highway of Tears. A few speakers at the Vancouver forum echoed the request for the series of cases in northern BC be dealt with thoroughly, and not simply as an aside to the inquiry into what occurred in the DTES.
"The women of the Highway of Tears need their own inquiry," asserted Alice Kendall of the Downtown Eastside Women's Centre.
"There is poverty across Canada. There is racism across Canada," she said, adding that "something happened in this specific neighbourhood."
In large part, the Commission of Inquiry arose out of the explosion of media attention concerning missing and murdered women during Robert Pickton's arrest, the high profile forensic investigation of his pig farm in Port Coquitlam, and his subsequent trial and conviction for the murders of six women. As does the Inquiry, media attention focused on certain cases and issues, to the detriment of many concerns and realities.
The facts are undeniable. The overwhelming majority of missing and murdered women in BC are Indigenous women. As has often been the case with media coverage and investigations, the terms of reference offer no mention, analysis, or instructions reflecting that reality.
One reality that has continued for decades, with the exception of the sensationalist coverage of the Pickton case, was an almost complete failure of the police, media, or government to take reports of missing and murdered women seriously, or to do anything about it. Many women denounced that the institutional racism of police forces and other institutions resulted in abuse and derision of family members who reported their daughters, mothers, sisters, and others missing.
"The silence was definitely deafening. We could hear it," said Dianne George.
"How did the Commission of Inquiry come up with the dates of January 23, 1997 and February 5, 2002?" she asked.
The terms of reference arise from the fact that the principal goal of the Commission of Inquiry is to recommend changes to improve the investigations of police forces and the judicial system, as well as inter-institutional co-operation in the future. It reflects the Pickton case, but excludes so many other women, families, perpetrators, and issues. The Missing Women Commission of Inquiry has in fact been dubbed the "Pickton Inquiry" by the media.
Several women came forward to speak about their own experiences with Robert Pickton and other suspected perpetrators to the Commission and others gathered at the Community Engagement Forum in Vancouver. They told harrowing stories of their interactions with Pickton and others, their sisters' and friends' visits to the infamous pig farm, and their treatment by the police when they came forward.
"I was treated as though I was making stuff up, as though I was delusional," recalled Terry Williams, adding that one police officer once told her that if she kept reporting information, she would be committed to a psychiatric institution.
The stories shared included experiences and incredibly detailed information, including the license plate of the van used by Pickton and others to abduct women, an Oregon license plate of another van seen abducting women, the location of Pickton's pig farm, and much more. Almost invariably, the response women and family members received echoed a comment made by Williams, when she had a license plate number of a van and a description of the man that she had seen abducting a woman from the DTES: "The cops would not take the information."
The history and experiences do not all relate to Robert Pickton. They do not all relate to the years between 1997 and 2002. Most of the women who spoke at the Community Engagement Forum expressed their frustration or anger at the exclusion of so many missing and murdered women, but also at their own exclusion from the process itself.
"What I think everyone here is saying is that those terms of reference are too narrow," reiterated Beverley Jacobs, emphasizing that she was not speaking as legal counsel for the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs (UBCIC), but as an Aboriginal woman.
"You have the authority, Commissioner Oppal, to change [...] those terms of reference," added Jacobs.
"We understand the dissatisfaction that has been shown here today," said Commissioner Wally Oppal, speaking on behalf of the Commission of Inquiry. "We want to see constructive changes made."
As the Community Engagement Forum came to a close, it was clear that relatives, friends, colleagues and neighbours of the missing and murdered women in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside have been proposing constructive changes for years. Beyond their critiques and proposals for the official Commission of Inquiry, which is set to begin within a few months, they continue to organize and mobilize in the Downtown Eastside, in northern BC, and across the country.
The 20th annual Women's Memorial March for Missing and Murdered Women will be held on February 14th - Valentine's Day - again this year in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. Everyone, of any gender, is invited to gather at the Carnegie Community Centre Theatre at Main and Hastings at noon, where relatives of missing and murdered will speak before the march begins at 1pm. Two solid weeks of commemoration events begin on January 30th.
Other Women's Memorial Marches, Sisters in Spirit vigils and other rallies for justice will be taking place on February 14th in Edmonton, Winnipeg, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, and dozens of other cities and communities across the country.
Relatives, supporters, and others from all over the country will also be joining the Walk4Justice again this summer, walking across the country to honour the missing and murdered Indigenous women from coast to coast, to raise awareness, and to demand justice. The Walk4Justice will reach Ottawa on September 19th, 2011.
ARTICLE: Sandra Cuffe is a contributing member of the Vancouver Media Coop and is currently based in Vancouver, in unceded Coast Salish territory.
PHOTOGRAPHS: Tami Starlight is a member of the Vancouver Media Coop editor collective and longtime resident of the DTES. (Downtown Eastside)