Oppal the wrong man for Pickton inquiry


I never wanted to believe that the missing women didn't count.


I never wanted to believe that the missing women didn't count.

That was always the criticism, of course. When I began covering the story in the late 1990s, families complained that police had failed to properly investigate the disappearances because the women were poor, addicted, sex-trade workers from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

If the women had been nurses or lawyers, the argument went, the Vancouver police response would have been swift and exhaustive. The RCMP would never have waited years to help out, and Robert Pickton would have been unable to go on killing for so long.

I didn't want to believe that, because I saw how hard some investigators worked.

But over the years, I've come to agree with the families. Individual officers cared, but police organizations, as a whole, did not. Nor did media outlets that buried the story, and certainly not governments, which had to be shamed into posting a reward; the missing women were never their people.

Police have since apologized for failing to take the case seriously and media have jumped on the story.

But, as we saw this week, the politicians are as callous as ever.

When Attorney General Mike de Jong appointed a Liberal colleague to head the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry, he was telling the families once again that that their sisters and daughters don't count as much as regular folk.

They didn't warrant a real police investigation back then and now they don't warrant a real public inquiry -- one headed by someone independent of government.

De Jong said he didn't understand the conflicts inherent in appointing his predecessor. Wally Oppal is a respected judge, who became the attorney general long after Pickton was arrested and charged, de Jong said.

"You will have to explain to me in more specific terms how Mr. Oppal is unqualified or unable to perform his task," he told reporters.

It's amazing to me that de Jong, whose deputy minister, David Loukidelis, was once an independent officer of the legislature, would have to have independence explained to him.

But let me spell it out.

Oppal might be the nicest, most decent guy in the world. He may have all kinds of knowledge about policing. But, until 16 months ago, he was the government. He sat alongside de Jong at the cabinet table.

And he wasn't just a neutral observer; he was the guy they trotted out in the legislature to defend the party. He defended the criminal justice branch's decision to stay 20 charges against Pickton. He defended the government's policing policies. He even defended the Pickton investigation, calling it "exhaustive."

And never once did he or his government comfort the missing women's families by promising that, one day, when Pickton's appeals were over, the government would review the case.

Why? Because the government had no intention of doing anything. For years, they refused to even look at the Vancouver Police Department's internal review. When the Supreme Court of Canada rejected Pickton's final appeal this summer, de Jong stalled for time, saying he needed to read that same report.

And who was out front, joining de Jong in dampening calls for an inquiry? Oppal, of course. He went on radio and talked about how expensive inquiries are, how they can lose their focus, and what would we learn from one anyway? He did all this even though the police themselves were calling for a public inquiry.

After the Times Colonist got its hands on the Vancouver Police Department's scathing internal review,

de Jong finally relented and promised an independent review.

Now we're supposed to believe that Oppal, the incurious Liberal insider, is the best person to lead it. We're supposed to accept that Oppal will make recommendations that could overturn policies he spent years defending. We're supposed to believe he can fairly review the decisions of the criminal justice branch that he oversaw, or that he will tell his cash-strapped cronies to spend millions fixing gaps in the policing system.

Most troubling, we're supposed to believe Oppal can make meaningful recommendations even though he admits that it's beyond his mandate to examine the need for a regional force -- arguably one of the keys to saving lives in the future.

Maybe Oppal can do all this, but de Jong would never have pulled such an insulting stunt if the dead women came from families with the money and power to fight back.

I never wanted to believe it, but I see now that the families were right all along. Society treated their sisters, daughters and mothers like throwaway women, and now we're giving them a throwaway inquiry.

(c) CanWest MediaWorks Publications Inc.

One woman's disappearance became a focus




Missing Women Tip Line: 1-877-687-3377

Updated: August 21, 2016