VANCOUVER – An independent lawyer appointed to represent the interests of aboriginals at the inquiry into the Robert Pickton case announced her resignation Monday, condemning the hearings for failing to listen to a marginalized people who overwhelmingly made up the serial killer’s victims.
Robyn Gervais issued a brief statement announcing her withdrawal from the hearings, and said she would explain her reasons in more detail in front of commissioner Wally Oppal on Tuesday morning.
Her statement cited delays in calling aboriginal witnesses, an apparent lack of panels on aboriginal issues and the focus on police witnesses. She also said she hadn’t received support from the aboriginal community.
“This inquiry is fundamentally about missing and murdered women, a disproportionate number of whom were aboriginal,” said Gervais, who is Metis and previously represented the Carrier Sekani Tribal Council.
“As I leave, I regret that I could not find a way to bring the voices of the missing and murdered aboriginal women before the commissioner.”
Gervais attempted to address the commission earlier in the day Monday, without hinting at what she would say, but Oppal told her there wasn’t time. That prompted her to walk out of the Federal Court room where the inquiry is being held.
Gervais was among two independent lawyers appointed by commissioner Oppal last year in an attempt to quell controversy over funding for non-profit groups.
Oppal had granted status to a range of advocacy groups representing sex workers, drug users, aboriginals and residents of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, and he recommended they receive government funding to hire lawyers. The provincial government rejected the funding request, prompting nearly all of those groups to pull out.
In the face of mounting public criticism last year, Oppal attempted to fashion a compromise, appointing Gervais to represent the broad interests of aboriginals and another lawyer, Jason Gratl, to advance the interests of Downtown Eastside residents.
They weren’t assigned to specific clients, but both lawyers were told to solicit input from the community groups that were denied funding.
While Gratl has said he’s been working with some of those groups, Gervais has told the inquiry she had received little support or input from aboriginal groups.
Gervais’ statement said there have not been any aboriginal witnesses.
However, there have been several witnesses who are aboriginal, though they have been vastly outnumbered by police witnesses.
They include relatives of some of Pickton’s victims and sex-trade activist Jamie Lee Hamilton. Grand Chief Ed John of the First Nations Summitt gave a presentation on the second day of hearings last October.
Lawyers for the commission declined to comment on Gervais’ resignation Monday afternoon, saying they had yet to see her statement or her hear reasons for leaving.
Gervais’ status at the inquiry allowed her to make arguments to the commissioner and cross-examine witnesses, which she has done numerous times since hearings began last October. She would have also been entitled to make closing arguments at the end of the hearings, which are currently scheduled to wrap up in April.
It’s not clear how her resignation will affect the hearings, or whether she’ll be replaced.
Gratl declined to comment Monday about whether Gervais’ departure will change his role.
“Ms. Gervais’ announcement has certainly given me a lot to think about,” Gratl said. “I’ll be considering very carefully whether I can satisfy my mandate.”
The majority of Pickton’s victims were aboriginal, and the inquiry has heard that aboriginals are disproportionately overrepresented in the Downtown Eastside, where poverty and drug addiction have become the daily reality for many of its residents.
The inquiry has heard evidence about how lives of abuse, including the intergenerational scars left from Canada’s notorious Indian residential schools, left Pickton’s victims to self-medicate using drugs, and then turn to sex work to support their habits.
The hearings opened with several weeks of academic experts discussing life in the Downtown Eastside, but have primarily focused on evidence from police.
The hearings are examining why police failed to catch Pickton as he murdered sex workers from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Oppal is expected to issue a report by June 30 that will detail exactly what went wrong and make recommendations for the future.
Pickton was arrested in 2002, and the remains or DNA of 33 women were found on his farm in Port Coquitlam. He was eventually convicted of six counts of second-degree murder, but once told an undercover police officer that he killed 49 women.