Most Pickton advocacy groups forced to skip inquiry

The lawyer for the families of Robert Pickton's victims says he's concerned an inquiry examining the case will be hamstrung as a growing number of advocacy groups refuse to participate.

Victims' lawyer concerned as advocacy organizations pull out, citing lack of funding

The lawyer for the families of Robert Pickton's victims says he's concerned an inquiry examining the case will be hamstrung as a growing number of advocacy groups refuse to participate.

Cameron Ward says he still believes there is important work to do to answer the questions of why it took police so long to acknowledge a serial killer was stalking Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

But the inquiry would have had access to a clearer picture if the government had agreed to fund lawyers for a range of groups representing sex workers and aboriginals.

"I'm concerned that the inquiry won't fully address all of the various issues that the public may be interested in and concerned about," Ward said in an interview Tuesday, adding that he can't be expected to fill the void.

"It does create an added burden for me and my small legal team. However, our only job is to ensure that we adequately represent the interests of our clients."

2 groups pulled out Tuesday

On Tuesday, women's organizations LEAF, or West Coast Legal Education and Action Fund and the Ending Violence Association of B.C., also known as EVA, became the latest to formally withdraw from the inquiry, which is scheduled to begin hearings in Vancouver in October.

They were granted status together as a single participant and their decision means more than half the organizations that were granted status at the inquiry have bowed out due to a lack of government funding.

It has left commissioner Wally Oppal with a shrinking number of voices as he looks for ways to prevent the horrific case from repeating itself.

Oppal had recommended more than a dozen groups and coalitions like LEAF and EVA receive legal funding from the provincial government.

But the province has repeatedly refused, prompting a steady stream of announcements in the past several weeks from groups who say they can't afford to attend.

Those announcements have had a cascading effect, with other organizations withdrawing in solidarity.

"Our coalition cannot participate in an inquiry into the deaths of so many marginalized women when the inquiry lacks the essential participation of aboriginal groups, sex-worker groups, and front line women's organizations," West Coast LEAF and the Ending Violence Association of B.C. wrote in a letter to Oppal.

"The failure to provide adequate resources at this early stage does not bode well for the government's commitment to implementing the recommendations of the commission in your final report."

'Height of unfairness'

Oppal has twice asked the province to fund a list of 13 participants, calling the government's decision the "height of unfairness."

However, Attorney General Barry Penner has said his ministry will only fund a lawyer for the families of Pickton's victims, insisting money is tight and resources are limited.

The groups that have dropped out include: a collection of sex-work organizations such as the WISH drop-in centre; the Native Women's Association of Canada; the Frank Paul Society; the Carrier Sekani Tribal Council; the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs; the Women's Equality and Security Coalition; and the Native Courtworker and Counselling Association of B.C.

Several others including the Downtown Eastside Women's Centre and the B.C. Civil Liberties Association have raised doubts about whether they'll participate, but have yet to make a final decision.

Oppal and his commission lawyers announced plans last week to appoint two lawyers to represent the interests of sex workers and aboriginals, but they won't work for specific groups.

"The commissioner and staff are obviously disappointed with any groups withdrawing — he believes that they do have contributions to make and he wanted them to participate," said commission spokesman Chris Freimond.

"There is a move to try to bring in additional lawyers into the commission budget to help present some of the perspectives of the groups who have decided they can't participate."

Idea of commission-appointed lawyers rejected

Some of the groups that were denied funding have rejected the idea of commission-appointed lawyers, arguing they won't be able to adequately represent such a diverse range of groups.

Ward said he also won't be able to represent their views, saying his commitment has to be to his clients, the victims' families.

"They (the families) may have different perspectives than some of these interest groups do, and I don't think it's fair to assume that we will step into the breach and present the various perspective of those groups."

Ann Livingston of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users said her group plans to participate using the commission-appointed lawyer, but she admits it's not ideal.

"I lament the whole mess that it is — the delay in setting it up, the sloppiness in who they gave standing to and then this bizarre denial of funds for legal representation," said Livingston.

"We can make that model (of a commission-appointed lawyer) work for us, should the model be set up properly."

Hearings begin Oct. 11

Oppal will examine why Vancouver police and the RCMP failed to catch Pickton as he murdered sex workers from the city's Downtown Eastside until his arrest in 2002.

He was eventually convicted of six murders, but the remains or DNA of 33 women were found on his farm in nearby Port Coquitlam. He bragged to police that he killed 49.

Hearings are set to begin Oct. 11.

Oppal will also hold a less-formal study commission that will look at broader issues surrounding missing and murdered women, including cases along the so-called Highway of Tears in northern B.C.

Forums are planned for Prince Rupert, Prince George and surrounding communities next month, although the inquiry has also run into opposition there. The chief of the Saik'uz First Nation near Vanderhoof has said the inquiry won't be welcome in her community.