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The Pickton inquiry: wrong job, wrong man

Nearly three years after Robert Pickton was convicted on six counts of murdering sex workers from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, British Columbia's attorney general has responded to calls for an inquiry into the events leading up to his arrest.

Nearly three years after Robert Pickton was convicted on six counts of murdering sex workers from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, British Columbia’s attorney general has responded to calls for an inquiry into the events leading up to his arrest. For years women’s groups, aboriginal leaders, and victims’ families have been demanding such an inquiry. Today they are aghast at what the government has unveiled.

Wally Oppal, a BC Liberal cabinet minister who lost his seat in the last election, will head up an inquiry whose mandate is narrowly focused on the police investigation into the murders. But what about the systemic failures that allowed at least 26 women to disappear into Pickton’s notorious Pig Palace before anything was done?

“This comes as a complete surprise,” said Phillip Stewart, Grand Chief of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs. “We were not consulted with regard to either the appointment or the terms of reference.” A disproportionate number of the murdered women were aboriginal. Declaring himself “astonished” at the choice of Oppal to head the inquiry, Stewart raised the question, “Can you think of someone with more baggage and more centrally involved?”

A number of questions need to be answered in order for the Pickton inquiry to have any meaning at all. First, who besides Robert Pickton was involved? The murders occurred on the Pickton family’s pig farm, where prostitutes were recruited for parties, and where it is alleged that Hells Angels were often among the guests.

The proposition that Pickton acted alone in murdering so many women and disposing of their bodies has always been a dubious one. Described as mentally “slow” by police at his trial, Pickton would have had to be a criminal mastermind to pull off so many crimes in secret in a popular party house like the so-called Pig Palace. There are reports of at least one key witness leaving town after being visited by bikers.

Another question that cries out to be answered is, how many murders are we really talking about? Pickton bragged to an undercover cop posing as a cellmate that he needed only one more killing to make up the round number of 50. These are important questions, and as a former judge, Oppal may be well qualified to uncover the answers.

But there are other, weightier matters to be considered, and neither the inquiry’s terms of reference, nor Oppal himself, are well suited to addressing them. In 1997, before any of these 26 deaths, Pickton was charged with attempted murder and forcible confinement after a Vancouver prostitute reported that he had handcuffed her and then stabbed her multiple times. The charges were dropped because the woman was not considered a reliable witness.

Whether it’s 26 or 49 women who died as a result of Pickton’s escape from justice on that occasion, it’s a horrific failure of the system. No inquiry into these deaths can be complete unless it asks what roles race, gender, and class played in that failure. Was that first victim considered “unreliable” because she was a sex trade worker?

Why did it take so long for police to respond to the fact that women were disappearing from the Downtown Eastside? How long were they aware of rumours about the Pickton farm before acting on them? Were the 50 or more women reported to have vanished from Vancouver’s poorest neighbourhood undervalued because they were women, poor, hookers, and in many cases aboriginal?

As a former attorney general, Oppal has had a personal and professional relationship with some of the police and prosecutors involved in the Pickton case. As a member of the Liberal government of the day, he is tainted by questions surrounding official attitudes toward poor, addicted, First Nation sex workers.

It’s an old trick of governments, when called on to investigate matters in which they themselves may come under scrutiny, to announce an inquiry with a strictly circumscribed mandate, lead by a respected, if suspiciously friendly judge. Witness the Mulroney-Schreiber affair, in which Stephen Harper neatly sidestepped accusations that the German arms dealer greased Conservative hands to the tune of $20 million.

The Oppal inquiry was announced without consultation with womens’ groups, First Nation leaders or the families of victims. Its mandate is too narrow and its leader too close to the action. It should be scrapped entirely, and a new process begun, in consultation with interested parties. We need to get to the bottom of the Pickton case and the failures of the justice system, and this inquiry is not the proper tool for the job.

What’s needed is an inquiry that asks the question, does anybody really give a damn about the safety of Canada’s most disadvantaged citizens? When we speak of safe communities, do we mean all communities, or just the nice middle class ones? What value do we place on the lives of the poorest of the poor? How do we ensure that a horror like the Pickton case never happens again?

Al Pope won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon in 2010 and 2002. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.