B.C.'s inquiry into the death and disappearance of women from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside opened in Vancouver amid the chants of protesters outside, and the withdrawal of several more advocacy groups.

Commissioner Wally Oppal opened the inquiry Tuesday morning by saying a key question he wants answered at the inquiry is whether society's most vulnerable women are being treated the same as other citizens by the police and the law.

"We must ask ourselves: 'Is it acceptable that we allowed our most vulnerable to disappear, to be murdered?' The question is upsetting. It challenges our fundamental values. We say that each one of us is equal, each one of us is worthy of the same protection from violence. But is it true?"

The inquiry, expected to run roughly eight months, is designed to look at the police mishandling of the Robert Pickton investigation and why the women, particularly those working in the sex trade on the streets of Vancouver, weren't better protected.

Pickton, a former pig farmer, was convicted of six murders in 2007. Investigators have said remains or DNA of 33 women were found on his farm in nearby Port Coquitlam. Pickton had bragged to police that he had killed 49.

After his 2007 conviction, Pickton was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for at least 25 years.

Earlier reviews pointed to botched police investigations, a reluctance to act because the victims were involved in drugs and the sex trade and a long list of other failures.

Inquiry opens as protesters march outside

Tuesday's hearing opened with a blessing by an elder from the Squamish First Nation in B.C. and a moment of silence for the missing and murdered women.

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About 100 protesters block traffic outside the inquiry on Tuesday morning in downtown Vancouver. (Tennille Evelyn/CBC)

Missing from the inquiry are more than a dozen non-profit advocacy groups that were granted standing but withdrew because they were denied public legal funding.

On Tuesday, four more groups joined the list of about 20 groups that have already pulled out of the process because of concerns that the inquiry would favour police and government institutions over street-level voices.

Instead, some of those groups participated in a protest on the streets below, and their chanting and drumming could be heard inside the courtroom.

Oppal cautioned everyone watching the hearings to keep an open mind about what happened and who is to blame. And above all, to remember that the murdered and missing women are at the heart of the inquiry.

"Each of the women was a valued member of her community. Each had dreams. Each had hopes, loves and fears. Each woman was loved and now each woman is missed," said Oppal.

"Individually, the loss of each woman is heartbreaking. Taken together, the murder and disappearance of so many women is horrific."

Police missteps hobbled investigation

The first few days of the inquiry will feature opening statements from various lawyers participating in the hearing.

Commission lawyer Art Vertlieb began by laying out the timeline of the various Vancouver police and RCMP investigations related to Pickton and his victims.

Vertlieb outlined a series of missteps that hobbled those investigations since the first reports of women disappearing in the mid-1990s. Most of the problems Vertlieb identified are already known, primarily through an internal Vancouver Police Department report released last year.

The units responsible for looking into missing women didn't have enough resources; tipsters were written off as unreliable; turf wars erupted between the Vancouver police and the RCMP; senior officers repeatedly rejected advice from their own officers who concluded a serial killer was at work; and a unit that was preparing to warn residents of the Downtown Eastside was disbanded, said Vertlieb.

Vertlieb told Oppal that the hearings will attempt to determine precisely what happened — and, more importantly, why?

"This is only our preliminary understanding of events in the investigation, and of course these issues are contentious and you will have to consider all the evidence," said Vertlieb.

Groups withdraw over funding issue

Inquiry terms of reference:

  • To inquire into and report on the conduct of the missing women investigations.
  • To inquire into the decision of the Criminal Justice Branch on January 27, 1998, to enter a stay of proceedings on charges against Robert William Pickton of attempted murder, assault with a weapon, forcible confinement and aggravated assault.
  • To recommend changes considered necessary respecting the initiation and conduct of investigations in B.C. of missing women and suspected multiple homicides.
  • To recommend changes considered necessary respecting homicide investigations in B.C. by more than one investigating organization, including the co-ordination of those investigations.
  • To submit a final report to the Attorney General or before December 31, 2011.

In a letter to commissioner Wally Oppal issued early Tuesday morning, three women's groups — PACE, WISH and the Sex Worker's Alliance of Vancouver — said that without funding they can't continue the work they're currently doing while also spending hundreds of hours to participate in the inquiry.

The Assembly of First Nations also withdrew before the inquiry began Tuesday, citing "limitations of the inquiry itself and an imbalance and inequity in legal resources made available to the parties."

"The AFN is no longer confident the inquiry will bring justice for the families of missing and murdered women in Canada," AFN national chief Shawn Atleo said in a written statement.

"We hoped the inquiry would shed light to uncover truths that could help with the healing process for the families as well as to begin to point the way forward so that all women and the most vulnerable have access to justice. Without equity and balance, systemic issues will not be brought forward and will therefore not be reflected in the recommendations of the inquiry."

David Eby, the executive director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, said the credibility of the inquiry was at stake.

"It brings us into question whether or not the inquiry can proceed at all with any legitimacy. I think it's time for the government to intervene. I think it's time for the government to step up and say how can we fix this thing," said Eby.

Inquiry will continue

On Tuesday, B.C. Attorney General Shirley Bond said the inquiry will continue despite the withdrawal of the advocacy groups.

She said the commission has hired additional lawyers to address the concerns raised by those groups, and the families of the missing women deserve answers.

"All of us have to make sure that we learn important lessons so that this kind of circumstance isn't repeated in British Columbia," Bond said.

"But the commission will proceed and, in fact, there have been additional lawyers provided so that advocacy groups like the ones that are choosing not to participate could receive the types of support they are looking for."

Bond said she hopes the groups that have withdrawn from the inquiry will reconsider.

With files from The Canadian Press