Missing Women inquiry will hear more voices

New round of less formal hearings announced

Missing Women Commissioner Wally Oppal.

Missing Women Commissioner Wally Oppal.

Attorney General Barry Penner has agreed to widen the mandate of B.C.’s Missing Women inquiry.

The probe into how serial killer Robert Pickton was allowed to prey on vulnerable women will still use formal court-style hearings where those testifying face cross-examination.

But the addition of what’s called a study commission will also allow Commissioner Wally Oppal to hear from more witnesses, including First Nations, in a more informal, less-adversarial setting.

That’s expected to mean more people are heard from northern B.C., along the so-called Highway of Tears where many women have vanished over the years, without having lawyers or legal standing at the inquiry.

“The study commission will provide more information for the commission, while ensuring the police investigations regarding Robert Pickton are fully examined to determine if proper procedures were followed,” Penner said.

The inquiry is expected to report back by Dec. 31 on how to improve any future serial killing or missing women investigations.

The inquiry will tour several yet-to-be-determined northwest B.C. communities in mid-June.

The study commission is to allow a broader discussion of policy issues, although Oppal has indicated he may not stray as far from the central issue of police investigations as some advocates would like.

Ernie Crey, brother of one of the women whose DNA was found on the Pickton farm, wanted the inquiry to look hard at government policies that concentrate vulnerable women in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

“I’m getting very impatient,” said Crey, who applauded the change but says time is of the essence. “We need to get this rolling.”

The inquiry is to focus on what happened in the five years between 1997 – when a woman escaped from the Port Coquitlam farm after nearly dying in a bloody knife fight with Pickton – and 2002 when he was ultimately charged with murder after several more women were killed.

The earlier investigation of the 1997 assault, the 1998 decision to drop charges in that case and the delay in eventually arresting Pickton again are all part of Oppal’s terms of reference.

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