VANCOUVER — The British Columbia government has rejected a recommendation to fund groups representing sex workers, aboriginals and residents of Vancouver’s troubled Downtown Eastside in the forthcoming public inquiry into the Robert Pickton case.
Former attorney general Wally Oppal, who is heading the inquiry, recommended 13 participants receive government funding to cover the legal costs of appearing at the hearings, but the province has only approved public money for the families of Pickton’s victims.
That leaves a dozen other participants — including a coalition of sex-worker groups, several aboriginal organizations and advocates working in the blighted neighbourhood that Pickton turned into his hunting grounds — without funding to cover their legal costs.
Oppal admits the province’s decision presents a challenge to his inquiry, but he said other steps are being taken to secure legal representation, such as finding lawyers willing to work for free.
“There are some concerns, but part of my job is to ensure that all people who have anything relevant to say will be heard,” Oppal said in an interview Tuesday.
“So the fact that they don’t have funding doesn’t mean that they won’t be heard.”
Oppal has asked that the inquiry’s lawyer meet with the groups denied funding to see what can be done.
The province launched the inquiry to determine why Pickton was able to continue killing for so long as the Vancouver police and the RCMP struggled — and failed — to determine why so many women were disappearing from the Downtown Eastside and who was responsible.
Pickton was arrested in 2002 and eventually convicted of six counts of second-degree murder, for which he is serving a life sentence. The remains or DNA of 33 women were found on his farm in Port Coquitlam, and he boasted to police that he killed as many as 49.
Oppal will also conduct a study commission into broader issues of missing and murdered women in the province, including in the north along a stretch of road known as the Highway of Tears. Those less formal hearings will allow witnesses to talk about their experiences without the court-like procedures and cross-examinations of the judicial inquiry.
Several of the groups that were granted participant status at the inquiry, but denied government funding, issued statement’s Tuesday criticizing the government’s funding decision.
David Eby, executive director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, called the decision “unprecedented.”
“There are lawyers on the government’s side representing everyone from the RCMP to the VPD to the criminal justice branch, who are basically saying that there were no problems or if there were problems, they’ve been fixed — and they’ve all got full government funding,” Eby.
“And on the other side of the equation, anyone who would question that or suggest the government would do more or that the problems are persisting or would critique the attorney general or police agencies, they’re not getting funded at all.”
Attorney General Barry Penner issued a written statement noting the government has no obligation to offer legal funding to participants in a public inquiry.
“These continue to be challenging economic times, and there are limits to how many millions of taxpayer dollars we can provide to lawyers representing advocacy groups,” Penner said.
Penner also noted witnesses and groups participating in the less-formal study commission won’t necessarily require legal counsel.
During the public inquiry into the death of Robert Dziekanski, the would-be Polish immigrant who died at Vancouver’s airport after he was repeatedly stunned with an RCMP Taser, the province covered the legal fees of his mother, Zofia Cisowski.
But at another high-profile inquiry, examining the death of Frank Paul in the custody of Vancouver police, Eby noted several advocacy groups — including his own — received government money.
“This is the first time we’ve ever seen a commissioner’s recommendations for funding be ignored,” said Eby.
“The commissioner says, ’I want to hear from survival sex-trade workers, I want to hear from aboriginal groups,’ and the government has said, ’No.”’
Several groups that were denied funding planned to hold a news conference Wednesday to pressure the province to reverse course.
Tracy Porteous of the Ending Violence Association of B.C. said the funding decision only adds to the criticisms that have overshadowed the inquiry since it was announced.
“This is a disastrous decision,” Porteous said in an news release. “Being a provincial organization, we would bring a strong substantive province-wide lens, specializing in violence against women to this inquiry, a perspective the commission said they are looking for, but we can’t do it without resources.”
Critics have already complained the inquiry’s terms of reference are too limited, focusing only on the police investigation and failing to examine the underlying issues surrounding sex work and poverty. Some have also opposed Oppal’s appointment, suggesting the former attorney general can’t be an impartial critic of government.