April 2, 2012 – Commissioner Wally Oppal Speaking Notes

Good morning.

I want to take a moment to welcome new counsel – Suzette Narbonne and Elizabeth Hunt. Welcome.

Ms. Narbonne and Ms. Hunt have been appointed to present issues related to Aboriginal interests. Ms. Narbonne and Ms. Hunt are experienced lawyers. I am confident they will bring great value to this process.

Ms. Narbonne started her legal career more than 20 years ago as a staff lawyer with Legal Aid in The Pas, Manitoba. She then spent 16 years working in Prince Rupert. From 2003 to 2009 she served as a governor of the Law Foundation of British Columbia. She also served on a range of committees during her terms: Child Welfare, Funding Strategies, New Grants, New Initiatives, and was Chair of Special Needs Fund. She served as a Bencher of the Law Society of British Columbia from September 2009 to December 2011. She was appointed to the board of the Legal Services Society in May of 2011.

Ms. Hunt is a lawyer and a member of the Kwakiutl Nation. Her practice areas include Aboriginal law, specifically treaty negotiations, residential school claims, corporate and commercial, intellectual property, wills and estates as it relates to Aboriginal interests. She has also been a sessional professor at Thompson Rivers University and University of Victoria. Ms. Hunt has a long history of volunteerism with children and youth in the community. She is a member of the Equity and Diversity Committee of the Law Society of British Columbia.

Ms. Hunt was called to the Bar in B.C. in 1995 and started her career as an associate at the law firms of Mandell Pinder and Cook Roberts. She has been a sole practitioner for the past several years.

Ms. Narbonne and Ms. Hunt have taken on an important role here. A role that I believe is crucial to this process.

I am aware that this Commission has received some criticism because we have appointed Independent Counsel to present issues related to Aboriginal interests. I want to take a moment to speak to this. First off, and I want to be clear – I have a great deal of respect for our critics. I appreciate your feedback and I take it seriously. I also strongly believe that this Inquiry needs independent counsel in this role.

The Aboriginal community is among the most vocal of our critics. I have listened to what has been said and I understand that there are many issues that the Aboriginal community – and other communities – would like to see addressed. They are not wrong. There is much that needs to be done.

The challenge we face is that many of the issues that have been raised do not fall under the mandate of this Commission. I understand the frustration surrounding this. I am also aware that there is strong criticism that we have put too much focus on aspects related to the police. This has made many people upset and angry. And I understand that. As much as I wish we could, this Commission cannot accomplish everything that people want – or need it to. It is important to remember that, at its core, this inquiry is about policing.

That does not mean that other issues and concerns being raised are not important, or that they should not be investigated and addressed. It only means that in the context of our mandate, we are not able to do so through this Inquiry. I am sorry for the anger, frustration and bitterness that this has caused.

This Commission has a specific mandate that we are bound by. This is an inquiry about policing, which includes, in our Terms of Reference, a focus on regional policing and how investigations by more than one investigating organization should be handled. I know that many people feel that it is not enough. But I want to remind you that it is a strong start, and that this Commission is committed to doing the best job possible. We are here to investigate the tragic loss of life, to understand how and why a serial killer was able to prey on our most vulnerable women for an extended period of time without being caught. We – and everyone involved in this Inquiry – are charged with an important and highly emotional task – to discover what happened and why. We must put forward effective recommendations that will make positive change so such a tragedy never happens again. This is not an easy job for anyone involved with this Inquiry. It touches our lives beyond what we experience in this room. It follows us wherever we go, it impacts us in ways we may not even realize… and I doubt it will ever totally leave us. The responsibility of what we have taken on here sits heavily on my shoulders, as I am sure it does for each person that is a part of this process.

Every day, I come to this courtroom with the hope that the groups that have withdrawn their participation will reconsider. No one would disagree that this process needs – in fact, demands – representation of the families of the missing and murdered women – many of whom are Aboriginal – the Aboriginal community, the communities of the Downtown Eastside and the extremely vulnerable women that continue to be victimized today.

I have heard the concerns of the people and the groups that have withdrawn – and I respect their positions. However, I want to take a moment here to say that I strongly believe that the action of withdrawing from this Inquiry is counterproductive. Each group that has withdrawn has an important role here – and by choosing not to participate – you are silencing your own voice in this process. Your voices are the heart and soul of our communities, your voices will bring positive change, your voices will help guide us along the path to a better future, a safer future for our most vulnerable citizens.

The door is always open to any group or person that would like to reconsider their decision.

I believe that we all share one important goal – we want this Commission to produce a report that makes a difference. This is the reason that Ms. Narbonne and Ms. Hunt have been appointed. We need issues related to Aboriginal interests presented by Independent Counsel. Co-counsel in this instance.

I spend a great deal of time thinking about what we, as a Commission, can do better, how we can learn from the feedback, and how we can improve as we move through this process.

This Inquiry has had many challenges. It has become a lightening rod – attracting strong criticism, bearing the weight of the anger and frustration of many people who feel that they have been let down by the police, by Government and by this Commission. This has created tension between many stakeholders and this Commission. And that is regrettable. All of this anger and frustration takes focus and energy away from the important objective of producing a report that will save lives.

I believe that no matter what our differences of opinion, we are all focused on this one important objective – saving the lives of vulnerable women at extreme risk.

As a Commission, we are moving forward with what we have been mandated to do. We have spent a great deal of time listening to the concerns of many people in communities throughout B.C. We have been to Prince Rupert, Prince George, Terrace, Smithers, Moricetown, Gitanyow and Hazelton and heard the concerns of many Aboriginal people at the Community Forums. There have been consultations in the Downtown Eastside, the one-on-one interviews we have done, the individual testimony, the panels that we have heard – and are currently hearing – and our upcoming public forums all provide important information that will help produce a strong report. We continue to listen.

To date, we have heard from 32 witnesses, we have had 64 days of testimony, and we have developed and released eight study reports. We have approximately 20 more days of testimony plus closing submissions to hear, three additional study reports to release and seven workshops and public forums to hold. There is still a great deal to do over the next months before the final report is produced. We are focused on developing a report with solid recommendations that will be effective in saving lives.

It is my hope that we can make a shift, starting today, in how we move forward together. I am not asking our critics to quiet their voices, I am not asking the groups that have withdrawn to go against their principles – I respect every opinion that has been voiced. I just want to make sure that we don’t allow our differences to become a roadblock to doing something of value, to producing a report that makes a difference.

Today, I ask that everyone involved take a moment to look at this process from an important perspective. I ask you to think about what we are trying to achieve here and to clear your vision of your criticisms – just for a moment. Look at what can be done instead of what is not being done. See it through the eyes of one person… as a sister, brother, father, mother, daughter, son, or a friend of someone who has been or could be at risk… View what can be done instead of what you feel isn’t being done. Look at it from the point of view of someone who can help save lives in the future by doing something, even if it feels like it isn’t enough.

I realize that there are things we could have done differently. I think it is important to become better every day and to learn from what has been done.

We are here because we are committed to making positive change. I believe that every person here – every person that has shared their voice in criticism and in support, every person that has spoken up and spoken out – comes here with that same goal: to make positive change.

We cannot let the Willie Picktons of the world triumph because we get caught up in how things should be and aren’t. We can’t let politics, bureaucracy, anger or frustration with a process or any other issues be our driving force. We must look to our hearts and decide, as human beings, that we will not let evil triumph. We will do something to stop it.

I know that this process is not perfect, but it is a start. I believe that together we can make an important difference. We can help save lives.

Everyone involved wants to know what went wrong so we can make sure that it never happens again – so that another monster cannot again prey upon vulnerable women. We want to make sure that what Willie Pickton did – does not and cannot happen again.

I am asking you to contribute to this process in whatever way you feel is of value. If that is as a critic, we welcome your feedback. If it is to attend the hearings or the public forums and tell us your story, that is important. If it is to send me an email and tell me what you believe needs to be done to help our most vulnerable people, that is needed. All I ask is that you do something – because that is how we will triumph over evil.

I want to leave you with a quote, because it is one that I believe speaks to the heart of this process. It is attributed to Margaret Mead:
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Together we can make a huge difference to the lives of vulnerable women at extreme risk. I hope that out there in this courtroom, in this city and in this Province, there are people – mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, sons and daughters who believe this too because together, we form that small group, the one that can – and will – change the world.

Thank you.