British Columbia

Oppal wrong choice for women's inquiry: B.C. chiefs

A B.C. native group says it opposes the appointment of former attorney general Wally Oppal to head an inquiry into the disappearance of women in Vancouver.

Former attorney general Wally Oppal's appointment as head a public inquiry into the disappearance of women from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside is under fire from native leaders.

The Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs has written a formal letter of complaint to the Law Society of British Columbia about the matter. Grand Chief Phillip Stewart said there is a potential conflict of interest in having Oppal head the inquiry, which will look at the investigations surrounding the missing women — several of whom ended up victims of serial killer Robert Pickton.

"How can an inquiry into the failings of police, government and Crown continue when there is, at the very least, a serious perception of conflict of interest of the person to lead it?" Stewart said.

The First Nations leader, who has long called for an inquiry, said the former judge is a "B.C. Liberal insider" who stated publicly during his tenure as attorney general that he saw no need for an inquiry. He said Oppal would have been a part of discussions that led to the decision not to proceed with a trial on 20 of the 26 murder charges Pickton faced.

"We were somewhat encouraged when, after a great deal of resistance, the government agreed to a full public inquiry," Stewart said. "And we were equally shocked and appalled when Wally Oppal was announced as the commissioner."

A spokesperson for the law society said the organization cannot proceed with any complaint. It is mandated to regulate lawyers practising in B.C., which Oppal is not.

Pickton has been convicted of six counts of murder and sentenced to life in prison.

Oppal was the attorney general who announced that the remaining charges would not go to trial, saying there was little to be gained by trying him on those 20. He said at the time Pickton was already serving the maximum sentence under Canadian law.

It was a controversial decision.

The province announced the public inquiry in September after Pickton had exhausted all avenues of appeal. The goal of the inquiry is to find out how so many women were allowed to be murdered before the serial killer was arrested and determine whether changes can be made to prevent a recurrence.

Oppal has until Dec. 31, 2011, to submit a final report.

Oppal denies conflict

Criticism of the appointment was immediate but Oppal has rejected the suggestion he has a conflict of interest.

"I won't hesitate to criticize people who need to be criticized," he said.

The inquiry will include a look at the RCMP and Vancouver police investigations between 1997 and Feb. 5, 2002, the day Pickton was arrested.

By the time Pickton was arrested and the DNA of 33 women was found on his farm, police had been investigating the disappearances of as many as 60 women. Vancouver police have already admitted they made a series of mistakes that allowed Pickton to remain free.

Pickton's jury heard the criminal justice branch stayed charges against him for a 1998 attack on a sex-trade worker at his Port Coquitlam farm, four years before his Feb. 2, 2002, arrest.