bc-090225-wally-oppal

Former B.C. attorney general Wally Oppal has been a judge in the province's two highest courts. ((CBC))

Former B.C. attorney general Wally Oppal said there is no conflict of interest in having him preside over the Pickton inquiry, despite his long career in B.C.'s judicial system.

Attorney General Mike de Jong confirmed on Tuesday that Oppal will be the commissioner of a public inquiry that will examine the police investigation of convicted serial killer Robert Pickton. The final report is due by the end of 2011.

Oppal, who was attorney general from 2005 to 2009, was also a B.C. Supreme Court and a B.C. Appeal Court justice and a commissioner of a previous independent commission of inquiry into policing in British Columbia.

He maintained that his long history in B.C.'s judicial and political spheres, and any personal relationships he may have fostered over the years, will not cloud his judgments when it comes to the inquiry.

"No, I see no conflict with any witness who may be called. But in any event, in the criminal justice system we deal often with people we know, who may be witnesses before us. But you have to set that aside," said Oppal Tuesday.

"You can't let any personal sentiments enter into whatever findings you make. You have to decide cases fairly based on the objective evidence you have and you have to set personal biases, opinions, or prior dealings aside," he said.

Any possible bias too much: chief

But Chief Stewart Phillip with the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs said he couldn't believe it when he heard Oppal was made commissioner.

"There's just too many instances where there's perception of conflict and having too close of an involvement in this issue," he said.

Even a small perception of bias was enough to warrant appointing a new commissioner, said Phillip, who also called the terms of reference for the inquiry too narrow.

David Eby with the B.C. Civil Liberties Association is also concerned.

"We have a serious concern about the perception the public will have about Mr. Oppal's appointment. He was very outspoken about whether we can learn anything from a public inquiry. He was involved in the decision not to advance the charges for the 20 remaining women found on Pickton's farm," said Eby.

"He was very connected with the Crown counsel's office and also with this current government, so when you put all these things together people can legitimately ask, will there be a problem here?" he said.

But De Jong isn't concerned

"I'm not aware of any circumstances that would preclude Mr. Oppal from performing this task in every bit of a professional way he has every other task he has as a learned public servant," he said.

Terms of reference

"The hearing commission will consider the police investigations conducted between Jan. 23, 1997, and Feb. 5, 2002, into women reported missing from  Vancouver's Downtown Eastside," according to a statement released by the province.

"It will also review the January 1998 decision by the Ministry of Attorney General's criminal justice branch  to stay charges against Robert W. Pickton for the assault of a Downtown Eastside sex trade worker," said the statement.

Pickton is now serving a life sentence for the murders of six women from the Downtown Eastside. Pickton had been charged in connection with another 20 deaths, but the Crown chose to prosecute the cases that would most likely lead to conviction.

Earlier this year, Vancouver police apologized for their failure to arrest Pickton in 1997 and 1998 and possibly preventing several deaths before his eventual arrest in 2002.

They blamed inadequate staffing and training and poor communication and co-ordination with the RCMP for the failure of the early stages of the investigation.