Playing politics with tragedy
By Jesse Ferreras, Pique Newsmagazine
August 19, 2011
One of my earliest experiences as a journalist was covering the trial of Robert Pickton.
On the first day of the trial I woke up at 5:30 am and CBC Radio was broadcasting a documentary on the victims. Names like Sereena Abotsway and Georgina Papin flowed out of the narrator’s voice like ghostly apparitions. The narration had a haunting quality, leaving no doubt that the spirits of wronged women would be watching human affairs that day.
My editor at my student paper picked me up in his parents’ van and drove us to the New Westminster courthouse on a cold, wet morning in January. There the media had set up camp outside the courthouse, waiting on the trial of a century.
I couldn’t get into the courtroom so I was left to cover the events outside. In the midst of TV reporters doing live hits a group of aboriginal women from the Downtown Eastside broke into a “woman warrior’s song,” a display that quickly diverted the media’s attention from the grisly events being described indoors.
I was overcome with a sympathy I’d never felt before. These women gave strength to each other, and to the vulnerable souls that were now the subject of this trial. My headline that day was, “Pickton trial ignites display of solidarity,” accompanying a picture of an aboriginal woman calling out to ancient spirits to keep her strong in dark times.
Every day after that I watched the trial closely, learning about these women’s lives and the cruel hand that fate had dealt them.
When the trial ended, sending Pickton to prison on six counts of second-degree murder, I was relieved to learn that the provincial government would convene an inquiry to plug policy holes that couldn’t possibly be addressed in a courtroom. The inquiry’s aim is to focus on homicide and missing person investigations, and to provide recommendations that will guide their work moving forward.
For families who will never see Pickton tried for murdering their daughters, the inquiry could provide closure, letting them know that law enforcement agencies are committed to preventing such a tragedy happening again.
So it’s been disillusioning to watch participants play politics with the inquiry in a way that has stirred calls for its cancellation.
The politics began with the appointment of the inquiry’s commissioner. A seasoned judge widely respected in legal circles, Wally Oppal certainly has a deep knowledge of the law and the calm demeanour needed to manage disparate interests.
The problem is that Oppal served as minister of justice at a time that the inquiry was being called for. He was on record as minister saying we couldn’t be sure that there would be anything to learn from an inquiry… and now he leads it.
I studied inquiries for my master’s thesis and what’s important in a commissioner is the perception of integrity. The best commissioners have records beyond question and the zeal to make findings of fact, as well as recommendations to prevent the calamities that necessitate inquiries to begin with.
I have no question about Oppal’s record as a judge… I simply question the zeal of a man leading an inquiry he didn’t always think was useful.
More recently we’ve seen the inquiry’s interveners cast even more pall over the inquiry’s work. Groups granted standing like the Ending Violence Association of BC and the West Coast Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund have essentially made their participation conditional on getting funding for their legal fees – on Oppal’s recommendation, I should add.
The provincial government agreed to fund a lawyer to advocate on behalf of victims’ families – a positive step, as their daughters were the victims of faulty government policy.
The government has, however, refused funding for the other interveners, and now groups including EVA and LEAF have made a show of withdrawing from the inquiry.
It’s entirely understandable that these groups would want funding to participate in the inquiry.
Advocacy groups like these are rarely swimming in cash and they depend largely on volunteer donations. And legal bills, as we all know, are never cheap.
The groups are not rich… but public funding was never a certainty and they should never have made their participation conditional on getting it.
The withdrawals have given fuel to calls to scrap the inquiry altogether. Indeed, Leonard Krog, an NDP MLA, told News 1130 that if the rest of the intervening groups withdraw, then the inquiry should be abandoned.
While I don’t doubt that groups like LEAF and EVA care deeply for underprivileged people, the bickering over public funding has created a sideshow that distracts the inquiry from the task at hand: identifying and improving government policy that could prevent women going missing or murdered as we’ve seen in the past.
The families of 26 women depend on this. Twenty of those families will never see Pickton go to trial for the murders of their daughters. Six have already endured a trial and now likely wonder how such events can be stopped in future.
Closure for these families is being delayed on two fronts: by a provincial government that perhaps wasn’t careful enough in picking a commissioner, and by interveners whose grandstanding gives fuel to calls to scuttle the inquiry’s work.
Together they play politics with tragedy… and they deny those families the catharsis they sorely need.