What questions would Pickton probe need to answer?
Published Tuesday, August 24, 2010 8:04AM PDT
The question of why serial killer Robert Pickton was able to destroy the lives of dozens of women who were lured away from the streets of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside is a complex one with many strands.
Until now, that debate has focused on the police, both the Vancouver force and the RCMP, and why they didn't notice a killer was on the loose and or stop him when they finally started to realize what was happening.
But as pressure for a public inquiry grows, observers say any independent examination must look beyond the failings of investigators and struggle with a more complicated question: Why were the dozens of impoverished women whose lives ended on Pickton's farm turning to prostitution to support their drug habits in the first place?
The British Columbia government hasn't said whether it will call a public inquiry into the botched police investigation, which allowed Pickton to continue killing for years after he first caught the attention of authorities, but it has promised some form of public review.
As the province considers its options, advocates calling for a public inquiry are offering their own suggestions about how best to explain this tragedy and prevent it from happening again.
"We have to look at how these women ended up in the situation they were in: How did they get there in the first place? Why were they on the street working? What is it in our world that lets us have people in that situation?" says Kate Gibson, executive director of a drop-in centre for sex workers known as WISH.
"I think that might get really complicated, but it has to be part of the discussion."
Gibson acknowledges it will be tricky to keep a public inquiry is focused on the Pickton case while also ensuring it's broad enough to examine what she describes as "societal" issues that plague women in the Downtown Eastside.
She says her group wouldn't ask for standing at a public inquiry, a status that would allows them to hire a lawyer and question witnesses, but she'd want an opportunity to speak.
"It can't be special interest groups -- WISH isn't going to have a lawyer there," says Gibson. "But there probably has to be a role for organizations to comment."
Pickton's criminal case ended last month with a decision from the Supreme Court of Canada that upheld his six convictions of second-degree murder. Twenty additional charges have since been dropped and prosecutors say they won't pursue charges in the deaths of six more women whose DNA was found on his farm.
The end of the criminal proceedings has finally allowed police to talk about what many had long believed was a failed investigation into reports of missing women in the Downtown Eastside in the year's before Pickton's arrest.
Last week, the Vancouver Police Department released a report that blamed poor management within its own force and the RCMP, a lack of communication between the two agencies, inadequate resources, instances of bias against sex workers and a series of blunders that slowed the investigation's progress.
The RCMP is expected to release its own review soon, and the force has already foreshadowed a report that will contradict some of the conclusions of Vancouver police.
Lee Lakeman of Vancouver Rape Relief and Women's Shelter says the role of police must be further examined, especially with the two forces apparently disagreeing on where to lay blame, but she says it must be broader than that.
"There's quite a lot that we need to understand," says Lakeman. "It would be better if we could have systemic change without going through this public inquiry process, but so far we have no leadership offering us that."
Lakeman says other areas that a public inquiry will need to examine include police oversight, the level of social services such as addiction treatment available, the challenges facing aboriginal women and welfare rates for women in the Downtown Eastside, to name a few.
"By engaging in a public inquiry process, we can equip ourselves as the public to increase pressure on the authorities to respond," she says.
Dave Dickson, a former officer with the Vancouver Police Department who was one of the first to raise concerns that sex workers were disappearing, says he would welcome the opportunity to testify at a public inquiry.
Dickson says the problems Pickton's victims faced continue, as women in the Downtown Eastside are still forced into prostitution to support themselves and their drug habits with few options to turn their lives around.
"If I get a chance to speak, I'd be talking about -- every one of those women . . . never got the help they could have and then they're on the street," says Dickson
"The inquiry has to look at the bigger picture and find out why these kids end up being victims in the first place. Nobody chooses to be a sex-trade worker."