February 21, 2012 – Missing Women Commission of Inquiry to Hear from Panels of Witnesses

(Information attributable to Mr. Art Vertlieb, Q.C., Commission Counsel)

The Missing Women Commission of Inquiry is and always has been about saving lives. It is a unique opportunity to change the way we police our streets and investigate violent crimes against vulnerable and marginalized women currently at risk in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and across British Columbia.

Our mandate is to inquire into the conduct of police investigations of women reported missing from the Downtown Eastside between January 23, 1997 and February 5, 2002, and to review the decision by the B.C. Criminal Justice Branch on January 27, 1998 to stop legal proceedings against Robert William Pickton on charges of attempted murder, assault with a weapon, forcible confinement and aggravated assault.

The work we have done over the past few months to meet our mandate has helped us understand what went wrong and why. This process will continue as we hear from more witnesses in the weeks ahead.

The inquiry’s 52 days of hearings so far have produced valuable information. Having lawyers for the participants cross examine witnesses in an adversarial process has been a necessary and important component and has already answered many of the questions we had about how the police investigation was conducted.

We have heard from family members and community leaders, from expert witnesses who provided context, from RCMP and VPD officers who conducted their own internal investigations, from Deputy Chief Jennifer Evans, who reviewed the case files and interviewed investigating officers, and from some of the lead investigators themselves. In addition, Commission staff has reviewed more than 150,000 pages of documentation related to the investigation.

The Commissioner now has a clear picture of the chronology of events and has heard evidence of the systemic shortcomings that contributed to the failure of the police investigation.

Today, the Commissioner announced that starting next week, the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry will begin hearing from some of the remaining witnesses in panel form. Hearing from witnesses in panels is a common and beneficial process for public inquiries.

Under this format, the Commissioner will invite input from panels of witnesses representing different interest groups, including the families, the Downtown Eastside Community, Aboriginal women, civic interests and police forces. Today, he asked Aboriginal leaders and other community leaders to help him develop this panel process.

We will still be calling individual witnesses where certain issues of fact may be in question, and counsel for participants will be able to cross examine them as has been happening up to now.

The panels on the other hand, will be a dialogue among participants who will be encouraged to share their experiences and insights. The panels will be a forum for generating ideas on how to protect vulnerable women and save lives.

We believe this approach will provide witnesses with another opportunity to contribute constructively and positively to our work by telling their stories and making suggestions that will help the Commissioner develop practical and effective recommendations for change.

The hearings will continue to be open to the media and the public and we encourage individuals who have important information to contribute to come forward and participate.

In addition to this new format, the Commissioner will initiate and facilitate a dialogue forum of representatives of the police, the families, civic officials and the community to work with him and the Commission staff to develop process recommendations for implementing his report and working together in the future.

I want to stress that the Commissioner’s objective is to make recommendations necessary to help save the lives of marginalized women at risk right now in the Downtown Eastside and in communities throughout British Columbia where women continue to go missing and where unresolved homicides may be the work of a serial killer.

At the end of the day, this Commission cannot eradicate serial killers from our society, but it can and will help ensure that serial killers are identified and stopped far sooner than appears to have happened in the Pickton case. It will help save lives.