Almost a year after it was originally expected to go to the Attorney General, the final report of the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry, Forsaken, was released to the public this afternoon.
Last month Pivot, along with West Coast LEAF and BC Civil Liberties Association, released Blueprint for an Inquiry: Learning from the Failures of the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry. In that report, we took the position that this inquiry was built upon a series of profound mistakes, including the appointment of a commissioner who had previously stated he saw no need for an inquiry, a lack of community consultation during the development of the terms of references for the Inquiry, and failure to fund groups granted participant status at the inquiry.
We argued that these fundamental errors seriously undermined the ability of this Inquiry to reach its potential in terms of bringing forward voices that have been silenced, rebuilding relationships, and promoting trust and healing. However, we also held out hope that the evidence of the families, independent legal council for the Downtown Eastside, and the police themselves would lead to some valuable recommendations for change with the criminal justice system.
Today’s nearly 1500 page report includes 63 recommendations. The Commissioner frames his recommendations in terms of four overarching themes; equality, community engagement, collaboration and accountability.
Using the law as a catalyst for positive social change, Pivot Legal Society works to improve the lives of marginalized communities.
Before launching into his formal recommendations, the Commissioner urges the Provincial Government to commit to two measures immediately upon receipt of this report:
1) To provide funding to existing centres that provide emergency services to women engaged in the sex trade to enable them to remain open 24 hours per day.
2) To develop and implement an enhanced public transit system to provide a safer travel option connecting the Northern communities, particularly along Highway 16.
We agree with these recommendations and call on the Province to commit to funding those recommendations immediately. We are also glad to see that there are a number of recommendations directing government to increase or renew funding for organizations, both urban and rural, who already work with at-risk women and youth in their communities.
This Inquiry, by design, focused on the internal workings of the police and criminal justice system, and as a result the vast majority of the recommendations are focused on technical questions related to information sharing and other bureaucratic protocols of the criminal justice system. In spite of this, we do believe that buried in the report are a number of important recommendations that could make our justice system significantly more responsive to the needs and realities of vulnerable women, as well as accountable to marginalized communities and to the public as a whole.
For example the report contains a series of recommendations for equality-promoting measures within the criminal justice system. A number of those recommendations have the potential to address the biases within the criminal justice system (which sadly were replicated in the Inquiry process), whereby those women most vulnerable to violence are not considered credible as witnesses as a result of those precise vulnerabilities. The final report recommends:
4.8 That Provincial Government fund three law reform research projects on aspects of the treatment of vulnerable and intimidated witnesses:
- The effects of drug and alcohol use on memory and how to support those experiencing dependency or addiction to provide testimony;
- Police, counsel and the judiciary’s bias and perceptions of credibility of people with drug additions or who are engaged in the survival sex trade; and
- Potential changes to the law of evidence to better allow vulnerable witnesses, including those who have been sexually assaulted, those suffering from addictions, and those in the sex industry, to take part in court processes
We are also pleased to see a recommendation that addresses the current exclusion of the RCMP from the provincial police complaints process. The final report recommends:
4.14 That Provincial Government engage with the RCMP in order to bring them into the provincial complaints process.
While a number of other equality-promoting measures recommended by the Commission, including revisions to Crown policies and protocols, equality-audits of police forces, and extensive new training measures are all steps in the right direction, it is unclear how they will be implemented and enforced.
The report also makes a number of important recommendations related to the safety of vulnerable urban women. Some recommendations, including the creation of new Liaison officer positions in Vancouver and around the province seem straightforward and by and large, were expected. We are pleased to see a number of specific recommendations that address the impact of criminalization on women’s ability to report violence, such as the recommendations:
5.8 That all police forces in British Columbia consider developing and implementing guidelines on the model of the Vancouver Police Department’s Sex Work Enforcement Guidelines in consultation with women engaged in the sex trade in their jurisdiction.
5.9 That the City of Vancouver and the Vancouver Police Department take proactive measures to reduce the number of court warrants issued for minor offences by:
- Reducing the number of tickets issued and charges laid for minor offences;
- Developing guidelines to facilitate greater and more consistent use of police discretion not to lay charges; and
- Increasing the ways in which failures to appear can be quashed early in the judicial process.
5.11 That the Minister of Justice consult with the judiciary, police and community representatives to develop a protocol providing the police with the discretion not to enforce a warrant in a circumstance where a sex trade worker is attempting to report a violent crime.
Criminalization remains a key factor in the inability of vulnerable women to access police protection and to hold perpetrators to account and encourage police forces and the Minister of Justice to act quickly on these recommendations.
We also believe that a few recommendations in the report have the potential to exacerbate harms, one of the clearest examples being:
4.13 That the Police Complaint Commissioner, working with police forces across the Province, take steps to develop, promote and refine informal methods of police discipline, particularly in marginalized communities such as the DTES and with Aboriginal communities.
That a report that addresses the power imbalances between marginalized people and police and the dire consequences of ineffective police responses in their communities in such detail would recommend less formal, more diversionary forms of discipline for police complaints from those communities is difficult to comprehend. Informal resolution of police complaints is not a suitable alternative for a complete and independent system of police accountability, and stressing alternative discipline when there has still not been a single police officer who has ever been disciplined for failing to investigate the missing and murdered women in this province is an insult to all involved. Perhaps the greatest injustice in Commissioner Oppal's report is that the only finding of misconduct was levied against Cameron Ward, the lawyer given the herculean task of representing all of the families in the face of dozens of police and government lawyers. Just exactly how this Inquiry can find systemic bias within the police forces without finding individual fault does little to dispel the notion that police officers and their superiors were afforded the highest level of protection.
We also can’t help but be disappointed that a number of recommendations for engagement with Aboriginal communities should have been at the core of the Inquiry process itself, rather than being recommendations at its conclusion including:
3.4 That Provincial Government appoint two advisors, including one Aboriginal Elder, to consult with all affected parties regarding the structure and format of this facilitated reconciliation process and to consider mechanisms for funding it.
Finally, there are some significant omissions and oversights in this report that cannot be ignored. The Commission is notably silent or non-committal on a number of important issues, and the Commissioner repeatedly points to the limits of the Inquiry’s terms of reference, to justify critical omissions, noting for example that:
My terms of reference did not extend to a full consideration of whether sexism or racism was pervasive within the cultures of the VPD or RCMP. I recognize that this is a live issue that we, as a community, cannot ignore. I also recognize that institutionalized bias, sexism and racism have on impact on both the individuals working with the organization, the work that they do, and they way they relate to others… The Commission received contradictory evidence on these issues, which I briefly summarize in my report.
We are also concerned about the Commission’s failure to make any findings of systemic misconduct, which the Commissioner explains by stating:
I take the view that a finding of individual misconduct should be limited to situations where conduct is motivated by improper, malicious or corrupt intentions. There is no purpose achieved by blaming individuals for mistaken behaviour or errors. While I will identify errors and make findings that are critical of some individuals involved in the police investigations, I find that these errors amount to, at most, an error in judgment. These findings fall short of my definition of misconduct and are not, in any case, the focus of my report.
Commissioner Oppal's definition of misconduct does not comply with the legislative definition provided under the Police Act. In short it is intentionally narrow and extreme. While many of the actions of the officers involved would qualify as misconduct under the Police Act, this Inquiry has elected to create their own definition, one that would absolve all officers of wrongdoing. In the end it is hard not to feel like this was a policing report, made for the police, with the input of police, and with the interests of the families and community placed squarely in the background.
We believe that the province is at a critical juncture. The final report is now in the hands of government and the public, and so the real work begins. These recommendations can not simply remain words on a page, they must be brought into reality, and in the end it will be the government's decision to implement the immediate safety recommendations in the report that will ultimately determine the legacy of the Missing Women’s Commission of Inquiry.