Nearly 300 people battled the rain to attend Day One of the Missing and Murdered Women’s Inquiry Oct 11, but instead of filing into Vancouver’s Federal Court building, a crowd gathered in the street in protest of what many say is a flawed inquiry process.
The inquiry is to examine the police investigation of the murders of serial killer Robert “Willie” Pickton.
“I feel like I have a target on me,” said Gloria Larocque, a 42-year-old mother and member of the Sturgeon Lake Cree Nation. “I’m an Aboriginal woman that is afraid for her and her daughter’s life,” she said.
Larocque was wearing a placard with a bulls-eye on it. She also built a life-sized coffin from cardboard and garbage bags, which she placed in the middle of the street as a symbol of the miscarriage of justice that she felt the inquiry had become.
She said the injustice that families of the murdered women have endured throughout the Pickton police investigation is nothing short of racism and sexism against all women.
“I’m here to support the ladies,” one Carrier First Nation man said quietly. Protester Marvin Dennis was one of the hundreds that formed a large circle on the street directly below the eighth floor court room where the inquiry had begun, stopping traffic for more than two hours at Vancouver’s busiest intersection.
While police, lawyers and friends and family of the murdered women filed into the inquiry, Aboriginal leaders, sex worker advocates, human rights activists and dozens from the First Nations community remained outdoors, drumming and singing and filling the streets with echoing chants for justice and Commissioner Wally Oppal’s resignation.
Protesters expressed anger about organizations being denied funding from the province to participate with legal representation in the hearing. Others voiced their disgust at a legal system they say is class biased and based on discrimination against societies most marginalized.
The rally was a boycott of process. The general consensus of rally-goers was that any recommendations to emerge from the inquiry would be riddled with bias and prove ineffective.
“There is a long history of recommendations being made that affect various groups without those groups having input, and it’s always been a mistake,” said David Eby, executive director of the BC Civil Liberties Association, which pulled out of participating in the inquiry.
“I think the commission is really determined to finish its work with or without the women of the Downtown Eastside,” he added. “But I think the government and the public surely recognizes that this commission can’t succeed without women of the Downtown Eastside, because it is about women of the Downtown Eastside and it is for the women of the Downtown Eastside,” he said.
But the families of some of the women whose DNA was found on Pickton’s pig farm say they are relieved the inquiry process is finally underway. They also feel resentment toward the government for leaving organizations out in the cold.
“Definitely [the inquiry] is one-sided, said Lynn Frey, whose step-daughter Marnie was one of the six women Pickton is convicted of killing.
“All of these people [protesting] are all very important people to this whole puzzle and they have no representation and I think it’s a bunch of shit!” she said.
While Frey believes she will never have closure in the wake of her daughter’s death, she knows the inquiry could provide needed answers regarding how Pickton was able to continue his killing spree for far too long.
“Hopefully, we will get some answers,” Frey said sadly.
“Will we get some peace from this? Possibly,” added Lori-Ann Ellis, the aunt of Pickton victim Cara Ellis. “I think the answers we seek are buried deep, but we have a very good lawyer who I think is really going to dig at that,” she said.
“I have faith that Wally Oppal is keeping a clear mind and will take everything into consideration,” she continued. Unfortunately, it’s not going to be everything that he would have wanted.”
“I think in order to get a clear picture of everything, everybody needs to be heard,” she said.
“With some of the groups backing out it is a loss [to the process], no question,” added sex trade activist Jamie Lee Hamilton.
“I wish that the BC Civil Liberties was still there. They should have got funding,” she said.
But along with many organizations, Eby says the BCCLA just couldn’t support the inquiry.
“This is without a doubt a human rights issue, it is a women’s issue, it is an Aboriginal First Nations issue, and the problem with this commission is that they just don’t get it,” said Eby.
Inside the courthouse, Art Vertlieb, Council for the Commission, gave his opening statements, addressing issues of trust between citizens and the police.
“The circumstances surrounding the Missing and Murdered Women’s Investigation have lead people to question the effectiveness of the police,” he acknowledged. “Whether there is merit to this belief or not will be explored in your inquiry.”
He added that the purpose of the inquiry was to examine the Pickton police investigation and to “ensure that mistakes, if any, will never be made again... Without public trust, police cannot carry out their important functions,” Vertlieb stated.
But Kerry Porth, former sex worker and executive director of PACE, an organization that assists sex workers, says she can no longer place her trust in the police.
“The people who actually did wrong in this case—the police, the RCMP and the Crown prosecutors’ office—are all lawyered-up and the victims in this case, we’ve got nothing,” she said.
“It sends a message to sex workers in the Downtown Eastside: ‘You didn’t matter then, you don’t matter now and you’re not going to matter in the future,’” she said.
“This is a national issue when it comes to Aboriginal women,” continued Porth. “They are disappearing and being murdered at an alarming rate. If these women had been middle-class, white professional women, none of this would have happened,” she said. “And if that is not systemic discrimination, I don’t know what is.”
Photo caption: Drumming and singing filled the intersection of Georgia and Granville streets blocking traffic during the opening day of the Missing and Murdered Women’s Inquiry on Oct. 11.
Photo: Shauna Lewis