Head of Missing Women Commission Inquiry 'appalled' by sexual harassment claims

The beleaguered Missing Women Commission of Inquiry is now itself the subject of an inquiry.

Looking weary and upset, commission boss Wally Oppal stood near his Vancouver hearing room Wednesday morning and announced he has hired an “experienced independent investigator” to look into allegations of harassment and intimidation inside his workplace.

The disturbing allegations were described in a story published Wednesday in the National Post. Five former inquiry employees described problems behind the commission office’s closed doors, including a “highly sexualized” work environment where male employees have used offensive language and have been dismissive of women.

Some senior staff have allegedly referred disparagingly to women’s bodies. One former employee claimed that a senior commission member told a female colleague, “You should spend less time working behind your desk, and a lot more time working on your ass.”

Another senior employee is alleged to have referred to a female sex trade worker as “the fat hooker.” The woman had offered to help the inquiry with its mandate, said a former employee.

The comments are “abhorrent,” said another commission source, especially given its mission to examine how police investigated missing women in Vancouver, and their belated arrest of serial killer Robert Pickton. Most of Pickton’s victims were female sex trade workers from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

Lyle Stafford/Reuters files

An RCMP officer closes the gate to Robert Pickton’s pig farm in April, 2002.

The allegations described in the National Post are “contrary to what I stand for as a person. I want you to know that,” Mr. Oppal told the handful of reporters who had gathered in time for his unscheduled appearance.

“I have never seen any of the conduct referred to in the article. I have never heard any of the comments referred to in the article, and I am at the office virtually every day,” he continued. “I seldom get there after 7:30. Usually I’m there by 7 a.m. I leave around 7 p.m. I am there virtually every weekend. I interact with our staff on a daily basis. I talk to the lawyers and the staff on a one-to-one basis. I ask them how they are doing … I’m shocked, I’m appalled at the comments. But they do deserve a response, because of their serious nature.”

‘I have never seen any of the conduct referred to in the article’

Mr. Oppal said he became aware of the allegations on Friday, after the National Post referred to them in an interview with senior commission counsel Art Vertlieb, who is also vice-president of the Law Society of British Columbia.

Mr. Oppal says he immediately took steps to appoint Delayne Sartison, a Vancouver lawyer, to conduct “an inquiry, an investigation.”

Ms. Sartison is a founding partner at Vancouver law firm Roper Greyell. Her practice “covers all aspects of management-side employment, labour and human rights law, including strategic planning, dispute resolution and advocacy,” according to the firm.

“No one needs to tell me how hurtful and how offensive comments of a sexual nature, sexism or racism are. No one needs to tell me that. And I’m offended by any of the conduct that’s alleged to have taken place,” Mr. Oppal said. He refused to answer questions from reporters. He later released a written statement that echoed his remarks.

Mr. Vertlieb has also said that no one on staff ever complained to him about inappropriate behaviour. He did not answer questions put to him Wednesday through an inquiry spokesperson. In his interview last week, he was asked if the commission office had a code of conduct policy. He replied that it did not.

National Post




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

Updated: August 21, 2016