A three-week postponement of the Missing Women Inquiry leaves the commission even less time to finish its probe of how police mishandled their investigation of serial killer Robert Pickton.
Commissioner Wally Oppal on Monday announced the hearings will be suspended until April 2 while a new lawyer is found to represent aboriginal interests before the inquiry.
Robyn Gervais, a Metis lawyer, had represented First Nations but resigned last week, citing the dominant influence of the large number of lawyers acting for RCMP and Vancouver Police officers.
Oppal had planned to wrap up hearings by the end of April and must hand down his findings by June 30.
A replacement for Gervais has been identified and should be in place soon, but Oppal said the new lawyer will need time to prepare.
He called Gervais’ departure a surprise but said it’s crucial the inquiry have a representative for aboriginal interests since many of Pickton’s victims were aboriginal, as are many vulnerable residents of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside to this day.
Oppal has repeatedly urged inquiry participants to minimize the time required as a series of delays and lengthy cross-examinations ate up time.
Attorney General Shirley Bond said she expects Oppal to meet the June deadline, which was already extended six months.
“We’ve been at this, it will be a year and a half, and at this point we are in excess of $4 million of taxpayers’ money,” she said. “So while I don’t want to rush the process, I think there is a reasonable expectation that this work should be completed in June.”
Bond said a balance must be found between the need for an appropriate length of time and for fiscal responsibility, given the cost of the inquiry will continue to rise.
“While it is an important opportunity to hear aboriginal voices and the context for aboriginal people, the major reason for this inquiry is to look at what happened with the police in British Columbia.”
Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, said it will be virtually impossible for a new lawyer to “parachute into” the inquiry.
He said the deadline threatens to sideline the remaining aboriginal witnesses because many police officers must still testify before time runs out.
Phillip accused the government of irreparably harming the inquiry last summer when it rejected Oppal’s request for broader funding for lawyers to represent First Nations and other vulnerable groups, causing most of them to pull out.
“It’s grossly misguided and misplaced priorities on the part of the premier in my view,” he said.
“Because of the shortsightedness on the part of the provincial government and the premier’s office, the inquiry has completely unravelled and lost all credibility,” Phillip said. “This is not about fiscal prudence, this is about missing and murdered women, the vast majority of whom were aboriginal.”
Next month’s hearings are expected to include panels of witnesses drawn from aboriginal groups and families of missing and murdered women.
Much testimony has explored how both the VPD and RCMP failed to target Pickton more intensively after he nearly killed a woman who escaped from his Port Coquitlam farm in early 1997.
Officers also got repeated tips that Pickton could be killing sex-trade workers from the Downtown Eastside in 1998.
He was finally arrested in February, 2002 and was eventually convicted on six counts of second-degree murder, although the DNA of 33 victims was found on his farm and Pickton boasted to an undercover cop he killed 49 women.