Presentation by Libby Davies (Member of Parliament for Vancouver East) to Commissioner Wally Oppal and others gathered at the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry, Community Engagement Forum, held Jan. 19, 2011
Mr. Oppal, respected elders, family members and members of the community,
I thought hard about how to begin today, having been involved with this tragedy of the missing women since the 1980s, when I was a Vancouver City Councillor.
For years I, like many, called for a public inquiry into the missing and murdered women. And here it is — the public inquiry is happening. It’s imperfect; not exactly as called for; and too limited in its scope of years, which is very worrisome as to why. But nevertheless it is a public inquiry — and that’s really important.
But already I’m thinking, and I hate that I’m thinking this: What faith do I have that this inquiry will result in any real change? Will it be another weighty report, well intentioned but destined for the back shelf and forgotten?
I’d like to say to you today, Commissioner Oppal, that I believe your biggest challenge is to produce a report that cannot be ignored, nor forgotten, nor dismissed. It must be a report that addresses the deeply disturbing and egregious wrongs done by our society to the most defenceless people in our community. Your report must have built-in mechanisms that ensure its active follow up. All of us as witnesses, experts, victims, families, friends and advocates must compel you to issue a report that is bullet proof, hard hitting and will cause shock waves as to what went wrong and why.
Nothing less can do. If it’s less than that, let’s go home now and keep pretending nothing happened, both individually and collectively.
So that’s your and our challenge: we get one shot at it and we’d better get it right. Otherwise countless other women, sex workers and aboriginal people, are doomed to harm, loss of life and tragedy.
In 1999, I met with the then minister of justice and told him about the tragedy of the missing women. He was a decent guy but barely knew anything about it. It shocked me that even though there had been so much media in Vancouver it was still not known nationally.
For over two decades, the City, Province and Federal governments and law enforcement agencies decided that the steady disappearance of women, mostly aboriginal and mostly working in the sex trade, was not worthy of committing the needed resources to put a stop to it.
We have learned little by little about what happened in the case of the serial murderer who preyed upon these women. We have learned that complaints were not taken seriously, standard investigation techniques set aside, jurisdictional issues looked over and that there was fighting, conflict and lack of investigation resources.
No one can deny there has been, and continues to be, a deep prejudice against sex workers and aboriginal women who are at high risk. It raises deeply disturbing questions about our judicial system, how it operates and how it failed the missing and murdered women.
The tragedy of the situation is far reaching. For many in the Downtown Eastside and beyond there is ongoing loss and grief as people face the enormity of what has taken place. That is one reason why a formal public inquiry is not enough.
The Women’s Memorial March in the Downtown Eastside has been one example of the grief and impact on this community. Last year in 2010, thousands of people came to Main and Hastings to participate in the march and remember the missing and murdered women.
The disappearance of over 60 women from the Downtown Eastside and hundreds more across the country, including the “Highway of Tears” and the disappearances evidenced in the “Stolen Sisters Report,” raise the most fundamental questions about justice and equality in our society, and questions about why these women were, and are, so at risk and vulnerable to violence, poverty, exploitation and death.
I was at a Parliamentary Committee [on Jan. 18] hearing witnesses, and one witness described the situation as “the brokenness of our system.” Current laws pertaining to prostitution make street-level sex workers vulnerable to selective and harmful law enforcement. And the failure of the criminal code to protect sex workers is a key factor that must be brought forward by this public inquiry.
The Parliamentary Committee on Justice and Human Rights completed a report in late 2006 on Canada’s prostitution laws. While the report didn’t go far enough, it did clearly outline the failure of the criminal code to protect sex workers and local communities. When sex workers are displaced to isolated areas as a result of the communication law (Section 213 of the criminal code), they become easier targets for predators and face greater risk of harm and death.
The current status of law enforcement pertaining to sex work is contradictory and unacceptable, as evidenced in the recent Ontario Superior Court ruling.
On the Parliamentary Committee we heard from over one hundred sex workers. We heard over and over again how they are fearful to report violence, assault, coercion and fear the police because of their illegal status. The poor relationship with law enforcement contributes to the danger they face.
It is ironic, to say the least, that the very protection that we believe we can turn to and rely on, is itself a source of harm and conflict for the women who went missing and others in similar circumstances.
The reality is this: the people who most needed protection often ended up being subject to harassment, discrimination and prosecution while the real perpetrators went free and unchecked. This is perhaps the greatest failure that took place, and puts into question the credibility of our law enforcement institutions and the role they play.
There are four key issues that need to examined and addressed:
1. The failure of the law itself;
2. Failure of broader public policy that deliberately deepens poverty, homelessness and loss of human rights;
4. Failure of law enforcement agencies and loss of their credibility.
I am reminded of the famous quote from Anatole France, written in 1894, and displayed in a mural at Main and Hastings:
“The law in its majestic equality forbids the rich, as well as the poor, to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets and to steal bread.”
We might not want to know as a society that we have allowed laws and policy to be applied differently to different people. But that is the case and that is, in part, what this inquiry is about.
I have five questions I hope you will ask and get answers to:
1. What went wrong and why?
2. Why were individual reports of missing women in the Downtown Eastside not taken seriously and followed up?
3. Why did it take so long to form a special task force with the RCMP, or even within the VPD, to investigate the disappearances?
4. Over the 30-year history of missing women, what patterns of law enforcement against sex trade workers have existed, beginning with the communication law in 1985, and what conclusions can be drawn from this that will explain the systemic issues involved in the disappearances and harm toward sex workers?
5. What public policies in the form of service cuts; deliberately minimized income support; and lack of housing contributed to the disappearances?
I also have some recommendations:
1. Support the need and call for a community-led process that allows the Downtown Eastside to cope with the trauma and impact on so many lives;
2. Develop a tracking system for the Commission’s report and ensure there are regular progress reports to the B.C. Legislature and the community. Consider the idea of an ongoing process, made up of elected and civil society representatives to follow up the recommendations of your report;
3. Don’t shy away from needed law reforms;
4. Examine the specific and transparent police protocols for receiving, processing and investigating complaints of missing women, particularly those who are identified as high risk and involved in the sex trade. Accountability is the key issue here. There has been none. In 2008 I wrote to the VPD about what changes had been made to respond to the complaints about missing women. I received a detailed response but it is not clear to me whether these protocols are adequate or even well known in the community;
5. Don’t ignore the underlying issues of poverty, racism and inequality. If they are ignored nothing will change.
6. See the families, friends and advocates for the missing women and sex workers themselves as allies and powerful voices who know what happened and can tell you why it happened. They know what needs to be done. If you listen to these voices the truth will come out.